DOCKET NO.: 77-533
DECIDED BY: Burger Court (1975-1981)
LOWER COURT: Supreme Court of California
CITATION: 439 US 572 (1979)
ARGUED: Nov 01, 1978
DECIDED: Jan 22, 1979
Elinor Hadley Stillman – for United States, as amicus curiae, by special leave of Court
Howard M. Fields – for respondent, pro hac vice, by special leave of Court
Herma Hill Kay – for NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund, as amicus curiae, by special leave of Court
James D. Endman – for petitioner
Media for Hisquierdo v. Hisquierdo
Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement – January 22, 1979 in Hisquierdo v. Hisquierdo
Warren E. Burger:
The judgment and opinion of the Court in 77-533, Hisquierdo against Hisquierdo will be announced by Mr. Justice Blackmun.
Harry A. Blackmun:
Well this case comes to us by writ of certiorari to the Supreme Court of the State of California.
The petitioner and the respondent are California residents.
They were husband and wife.
California is one of the seven states that has a community property law which came down to us from Spanish.
In California, the rule of law rest upon the theory that in respect to property acquired during marriage, the marriage is a community of which each spouse is a member who contributes equally to the prosperity of the marriage.
Community property includes that which is earned by either spouse during the union.
In 1975, Mr. Hisquierdo, the petitioner, instituted this proceeding in the Superior Court of Los Angeles County for dissolution of the marriage.
He was a railroad machinist and at the time the divorce suit was filed he was 55 years of age.
He had worked for the Santa Fe and later the Los Angeles Union Passenger Terminal for 32 years.
His work was covered by the Railroad Retirement Act of 1974 and if and when he attains age 60, he will receive benefits under the Act.
His wife was employed separately.
Each of them waived any claim for alimony.
The pertinent issue in the litigation is whether that portion of the anticipated benefits under the Railroad Retirement Act attributable to petitioner’s work during the period of the marriage qualifies as community property and is to be divided between the parties either as received or by way of calculation into the present division of their other community property.
The benefits under the Act are not contractual.
They can be altered by Congress at any time.
The Act provides benefits for an employee’s spouse but those benefits terminate upon an absolute divorce except for satisfying child support or alimony obligations.
The Act in Section 231m specifically provides and I quote, “No annuity under the Act shall be assignable or be subject to any tax or to garnishment, attachment, or other legal process under any circumstances whatsoever.
Nor shall the payment thereof be anticipated.”
That’s the end of the quote.
The trial court ruled that the wife had no interest in the petitioner’s expectation of benefits under this Act.
The Supreme Court of California reversed that holding and held that the benefits were community property.
It cast aside the apparent barrier of the statute on the ground that that provisions was intended to apply only to creditors.
In an opinion filed today with the clerk we reverse.
We hold that benefits payable under the Act may not be divided under the state’s community property law to require the employee to pay respondent a portion of the anticipated benefits or its monetary equivalent would contravene the statute and deprive the employee of a portion of a benefit that Congress indicated was designed for the employee alone.
Under the Supremacy Clause of the constitution, the state must defer to the Act’s statutory scheme for allocating benefits insofar as the terms of federal law require.
I’m authorized to state that Mr. Justice Stewart has filed a dissenting opinion and joined in that opinion by Mr. Justice Rehnquist.
Warren E. Burger:
Thank you Mr. Justice Blackmun.