Corbett v. Stergios

LOCATION: Criminal District Court, Parish of New Orleans

DECIDED BY: Warren Court (1962-1965)

CITATION: 381 US 124 (1965)
ARGUED: Apr 27, 1965
DECIDED: May 03, 1965

Facts of the case


Media for Corbett v. Stergios

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - April 27, 1965 in Corbett v. Stergios

Earl Warren:

Number 179, Stanley M. Corbett, Guardian of the Property of Constantine Neonakis, a minor, appellant, versus Viola Stergios, etcetera.

Mr. Eidsmoe?

Robert R. Eidsmoe:

Mr. Chief Justice and may it please the Court.

This is an appeal from a decision of the Supreme Court of the State of Iowa pursuant to 28 U.S.C., Section 1257(2).

The question presented here is rather narrowly defined and is whether or not the Treaty of Friendship, Commerce and Navigation between the United States and Greece nullifies the requirement of Section 567.8 of the Court of Iowa that the appellant here, a non-resident Greek alien, proved the existence of a reciprocal right to succession before he can acquire interest in Iowa property by succession from his adopting father.

Briefly, the facts in this case are that back in 1950 or 1946, the appellee here, then a young lady of approximately 18 years married one Nicholas Stergios, then approximately 54 years of age and in 1954, Nicholas Stergios executed a will wherein he left the bulk of his property to his wife and some other property to what is indicated to be a niece ward.

No mention was made in that will of any provision for children or any mention made with regard to children at all.

No children were born of this marriage between the appellee and Nicholas Stergios and then in 1956 and 1957, discussion was had between the married couple about the desirability of adopting a child.

Proceedings were commenced in a Court in Greece to adopt the young child there, which culminated in a decree in a Greek Court in February 1958 whereby the appellant's ward here was adopted by Nicholas Stergios.

Nick Stergios became ill shortly after the adoption decree and died in August 1958.

The minor child was never brought over to this country, Mr. Stergios’ estate was probated and closed in March 1959.

Early in 1961, this guardianship wherein Stanley Corbett became the guardian of Constantine Neonakis was established and a suit was commenced in the District Court of Iowa in Woodbury County to reopen the estate, set aside the probate proceedings, have a new administrator appointed, and to have -- to allow the child to recover two-thirds of the estate.

Under Iowa law an after-born child who is not mentioned in a will is entitled to recover a child’s intestate share, which in Iowa is two-thirds of the estate.

The trial was had in July of 1962 wherein the appellant contended that the child had been legally and validly adopted in the Greek Courts and that by virtue of Section 633.13 of the Court of Iowa the child was entitled to a child's intestate share.

In the proceedings in the Iowa Court, there came at a question then whether or not the child was entitled to inherit, because of the provisions of Iowa Code Section 567.8, which states that a non-resident alien cannot take title to real estate in Iowa, unless he can prove the existence of reciprocal rights to succession granted to American citizens in his country.

Or in other words here, the Greek alien could not inherit Iowa property unless he could prove that American citizens in Greece were granted a reciprocal right to inherit property in Greece from Greeks.


Robert R. Eidsmoe:

The Iowa Code Section applies to both real property and personal property Your Honor.

It was contended by the appellant at the time of the trial and the Court took judicial notice of the Treaty of Friendship, Commerce and Navigation between United States and Greece and as I say, it was contended by the appellant that the provisions of this treaty nullified the requirements of the Iowa Code Section requiring proof of reciprocal inheritance rights.

The Trial Court found that there had been a valid adoption in the Greek Courts by Nick Stergios and that the adoption was conclusive on the Iowa Court and that there had been no fraud in the procurement of the adoption.

Potter Stewart:

There had been what?

Robert R. Eidsmoe:

No fraud in the procurement of the adoption, that had been one ground raised by the defendant there.

The Iowa Court did find however that there was no conflict between the provisions of the Iowa reciprocal succession statute and the treaty and thereupon dismissed the petition of the appellant herein.

Appeal was taken to the Iowa Supreme Court and there the sole question raised on appeal was the claimed error of the trial court in holding that there was no conflict between the treaty and the statute and again, this time by a five to four decision, the Iowa Supreme Court held that again there was no conflict between the treaty and the statute and held that the Trial Court was correct in dismissing the petition.

So hence, we're in this Court, appealing a decision of the Iowa Supreme Court and we get down to the basic issue in the case whether the treaty suspends or nullifies, whichever term you prefer, the requirements of Section 567.8 of the Iowa Code that the appellant must prove the existence of reciprocal succession rights in order to enable him to take property by succession.

We get down to a few basic principles of interpretation of treaty, Your Honor.

The first, of course that the treaties -- treaty power is supreme, treaties are to be liberally construed, and that there is no need to restrictively interpret treaties in order to avoid any conflicts with state statutes.

Now without regard to the treaty for a moment, there is no question but that Section 567.8 of Iowa code would require the appellant here to prove the existence of reciprocal succession rights, in other words, that American citizens could inherit in Greece to the same extent that we're claiming rights in the Iowa Court.

This is without regard of the treaty, and the burden is placed upon the appellant and/or the plaintiff, the claimant, to make such proof as a matter of fact of the Greek law.

This, we did not do, but chose to rely upon the provisions of the treaty, which we felt to be completely in conflict with the Iowa statute.