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The power of a court to hear and determine a lawsuit involving a defendant by virtue of the defendant's having some contact with the place where the court is located.
Personal jurisdiction, also known as in personam (against the person) jurisdiction, gives a court the authority to make decisions binding on the persons involved in a civil case. Every state has personal jurisdiction over persons within its territory. Conversely, no state can exercise personal jurisdiction and authority over persons outside its territory unless the persons have manifested some contact with the state.
The authority of the court to issue orders to persons present within the territory comes from the sovereign power of the government. The court's authority allows it to reach all residents of a state, including those who are outside the state for a short period and out-of-state residents who enter the state even briefly.
Deciding whether an individual is within the personal jurisdiction of a court has not been difficult to determine. Difficulty has arisen when courts have had to decide whether corporations were subject to personal jurisdiction. Corporations have a legal existence and a legal identity but not a tangible existence. They are subject to lawsuits involving tort and contract. As corporations became national economic entities, the courts of a state had difficulty finding personal jurisdiction if the corporation was not located within that state.
Courts established that a corporation is always subject to the jurisdiction of the courts in the state where it was incorporated. States also require corporations to file written consents to personal jurisdiction before they can conduct business within the state. Other states require that either the corporation designate an agent to accept legal process (the legal documents initiating a lawsuit) in the state or that the state attorney general be authorized to accept process for all out-of-state corporations doing business within the state.
In 1945 the U.S. Supreme Court modernized personal jurisdiction requirements when it announced the "minimum contacts" test in International Shoe Co. v. Washington, 326 U.S. 310, 66 S. Ct. 154, 90 L. Ed. 95. The Court held that courts could constitutionally exercise jurisdiction over a nonresident defendant if the defendant had sufficient contacts with the state such that forcing the person to litigate in that forum did not offend "traditional notions of fair play and substantial justice." Because of the ease of modern communication and transportation, it is usually not unfair to require a party to defend itself in a state in which it conducts business activity.
The threshold of minimum contacts varies. Where the action arises out of or is related to the defendant's contacts with the state, the quantity of contacts necessary to establish personal jurisdiction may be truly minimal. In such cases the nature and quality of the contact are the determining factors. In the case of a nonresident motorist who causes an injury in the forum state (the state of the court asserting jurisdiction), the interest of the state in providing a forum for its residents and regulating its highways, coupled with the defendant's having purposefully entered the state, permits the state to fairly assert personal jurisdiction.
A corporation or individual not physically present in a state may invoke personal jurisdiction by making a single contact with the state by telephone, mail, or facsimile transmission. In Hanson v. Denckla, 357 U.S. 235, 78 S. Ct. 1228, 2 L. Ed. 2d 1283 (1958), the Court ruled that even a single transaction can trigger personal jurisdiction when the defendant purposely avails itself of the privilege of conducting activities with the forum state and invokes the benefits and protection of state law.
States quickly took advantage of International Shoe by enacting "long-arm statutes." These statutes allow the state to reach out and obtain jurisdiction over anyone who is not present in the state but who transacts business within the state, commits a tort within the state, commits a tort outside the state that causes injury within the state, or owns, uses, or possesses real property within the state.
Personal jurisdiction in the federal courts is governed by rule 4 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Rule 4 directs each federal district court to follow the law on personal jurisdiction that is in force in the state courts where the federal court is located. Federal courts may use state long-arm statutes to reach defendants beyond the territory of their normal authority. With cases that can only be brought in federal court, such as lawsuits involving federal Securities and antitrust laws, federal courts may exercise personal jurisdiction over a defendant no matter where the defendant is found.
When a person wishes to challenge personal jurisdiction, he or she must take care in appearing before the court in the forum state. If the defendant makes a general appearance, the court will take this to be an unqualified submission to the personal jurisdiction of the court. The defendant waives the right to raise any jurisdictional defects.
To prevent this from happening, a defendant must request a special appearance before the court. A special appearance is made for the limited purpose of challenging the sufficiency of the Service of Process or the personal jurisdiction of the court. If any other issues are raised, the proceeding becomes a general appearance. The court must then determine whether it has jurisdiction over the defendant. If the defendant is found to be within the personal jurisdiction of the court, the issue may be appealed. Some states permit an immediate appeal, whereas others make the defendant raise the issue after the case has been heard on its merits in the trial court.
Cebik, Sarah R. 1998. "'A Riddle Wrapped in a Mystery Inside an Enigma': General Personal Jurisdiction and Notions of Sovereignty." Annual Survey of American Law 1998 (winter): 1–48.
Redish, Martin H. 1998."Of New Wine and Old Bottles: Personal Jurisdiction, the Internet, and the Nature of Constitutional Evolution." Jurimetrics Journal of Law, Science and Technology 38 (summer): 575–610.