Every first-year law student learns that one of the first questions a defendant must ask is whether the court in which a lawsuit is filed has personal jurisdiction—that is, whether the state or federal court can exercise power over the defendant. The Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment limits the reach of that power, preventing a court from exercising jurisdiction over a defendant that has no ties to the State in which the court sits.
Applying this limitation, the U.S. Supreme Court has recognized two kinds of personal jurisdiction: general and specific. General jurisdiction permits courts to adjudicate claims against a defendant arising out of actions occurring anywhere in the world (subject, of course, to any limits specific to a particular cause of action). It requires that the defendant be considered “at home” in the forum.
Specific jurisdiction, by contrast, empowers a court to adjudicate particular claims relating to a defendant’s conduct within the forum. To be subject to specific jurisdiction, the defendant must have established contacts with the forum, and the lawsuit must arise out of those contacts.
Both of these forms of personal jurisdiction have been examined by the Supreme Court in recent years, but the lower courts remain in disarray over how to apply the Court’s precedents. Likely for that reason, the Court has recently agreed to review two cases addressing both facets of personal jurisdiction.
First, the Court granted certiorari in BNSF Railway Co. v. Tyrrell, in which (in our view) the Montana courts failed to honor Supreme Court precedent establishing limits on general jurisdiction. Second, the Court granted review in Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. v. Superior Court, in which the California courts similarly flouted the limits on specific jurisdiction by allowing out-of-state plaintiffs to sue in California for claims that have nothing to do with the state. Defendants who face class and mass actions should follow both cases closely, and both will be important barometers for whether the Court is committed to maintaining strict limits on the scope of personal jurisdiction. (We filed an amicus brief (pdf) for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Bristol-Myers Squibb explaining the disarray in the lower courts and why that case in particular warranted Supreme Court review.)