Published online by Cambridge University Press: 05 November 2011
The U.S. Supreme Court recently remarked, “Long ago [in 1890] we observed that ‘the whole subject of the domestic relations of husband and wife, parent and child, belongs to the law of the States and not to the laws of the United States.’” The context for the statement was a case followed by Court-watchers for a challenge to the validity of the Pledge of Allegiance. The very way it was made, in such an offhanded way, underscores how commonplace is the basic assumption that marriage and divorce law is entirely and exclusively a state law matter.
Even more basic than this federalism assumption are two further assumptions about family law, which run so deep they are virtually never even stated. The first is that the civil authority is the sole relevant authority for matters relating to marriage and divorce. The second is that within civil law there may only be one regulatory regime governing matters of marriage and divorce. Thus, there is an assumption of (1) exclusive jurisdiction, with all authority residing in the civil state; and (2) a “one-size-fits-all” model that applies to all couples, where no deviation from that model is permitted.