Burnham v. Superior Court of California

495 U.S. 604 (1990).

One-Sentence Takeaway: A state can exercise personal jurisdiction over an individual based on proper service of process while the person is temporarily present within that state.

Summary: Dennis Burnham and his wife were living in New Jersey when they decided to separate.  The wife moved with the children to California, filed for divorce in that state and served Burnham while he was visiting the children in California.

Burnham’s only relevant contacts with the state of California were a few visits there to see his children. Nonetheless, the Supreme Court upheld a California state-court judgment against Burnham.  In Justice Scalia’s words, “[t]he short of the matter is that jurisdiction based on physical presence alone constitutes due process because it is one of the continuing traditions of our legal system that define the due process standard.”  The Court therefore upheld the constitutionality of transient jurisdiction, because the practice did not conflict with traditional notions of fair play and substantial justice.

However, the Court also instructed that states only “acquired jurisdiction over such a person by properly serving him with process.”  Thus, where the instate service of process is flawed or otherwise deficient in some manner, personal jurisdiction based on in-state service does not arise.

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