Burnham v. Superior Court of California
495 U.S. 604, 110 S. Ct. 2105, 109 L. Ed. 2d 631 (1990)

  • The Burnhams were getting divorced.  Mrs. Burnham sued for divorce in California.  While Mr. Burnham was in California briefly he was served process.
  • Mr. Burnham made a special appearance in California to try to quash service of process on the grounds that California did not have personal jurisdiction over him due to insufficient contacts (so it was a violation of the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment).  The Superior Court denied his motion. Mr. Burnham appealed.
    • Mr. Burnham argued that the International Shoe v. Washington (326 U.S. 310 (1945)) standard of “continuous and systematic” contacts should be the standard.
  • The California Appellate Court affirmed.  Mr. Burnham appealed.
  • The US Supreme Court was unable to form a majority opinion, but ruled that California did indeed have personal jurisdiction over Burnham.
    • One faction, led by Justice Scalia (4 votes) found that it is sufficient that the defendant be physically present for California to have personal jurisdiction.
      • Scalia said that courts basically have always had jurisdiction over physically present defendants and ought to continue to have such jurisdiction.
      • Scalia also rejected the argument that Shaffer v. Heitner (433 U.S. 186 (1977)) says that all questions of personal jurisdiction should be evaluated according to the International Shoe standard.  Scalia points to the language in Shaffer and says it only applied to absent defendants.
    • The other faction, led by Justice Brennan, agreed that California has jurisdiction, but that courts must consider minimum contacts and fair play factors, as opposed to just physical presence.
      • Brennan said that just because something has been the law for a long time doesn’t mean it’s just or right.
      • Brennan interpreted the ruling in Shaffer to mean that all personal jurisdiction rules must be evaluated according to minimum contacts and fair play, even “ancient” rules.
      • The fact that physical presence has been sufficient for personal jurisdiction for so long, Brennan argued, means that someone who goes to California has “clear notice” that they can be served process there.
  • This is a classic fairness versus efficiency concern.  Working out complex rules to make each case fair would increase the overhead involved in litigation and might only prevent a few abuses.  In order to weigh these factors, it would be useful to know just how frequently these abuses occur or would occur under each set of rules.
  • For divorce law, courts have come up with something called the marital domicile, which means that you be held for in personam jurisdiction, in the State where you lived with your spouse.