I've been devoting my time since leaving Phoenix to non-stop studying for Civil Procedure. I find the cases and concepts I understand best are the ones about which I've blogged, so I thought, in preparation for my Civil Procedure exam in less than two weeks, I'd post on some big concepts. Hopefully it won't be too boring. I'll leave out specific cases for the most part and focus on hypotheticals, which are helpful insofar as they allow me to present and discuss a swathe of different issues, while a real case generally turns on only one issue.

Today's lecture/lesson/sermon is on Jurisdiction. Broadly speaking, jurisdiction is the right that a given court has to hear a case. Generally speaking, in America we allow plaintiffs broad discretion in crafting their case. We let them plead the cases they want, exclude the arguments they don't want, include or exclude parties as they like, etc. We also allow plaintiffs broad discretion in choosing the forum where their case will be heard. This discretion, however, is mitigated by the right that we give defendants to challenge jurisdiction. The plaintiff gets to choose the court, and the defendant has the right to shout "No fair!"

There are three questions to ask in determining whether a case is properly before a given court. All three of these questions must be answered in the affirmative, or else the case will be removed or dismissed. First, does the court have subject matter jurisdiction over the type of case being heard? Second, does the court have personal jurisdiction over the defendants being sued? Finally, is this the proper venue for the suit?

Now seems a good time to give this abstract discussion more grounding by bringing in the hypothetical example. Let us take a purely hypothetical person named, say, Dianna. Dianna was born in California, raised in California, and, in order to eliminate potential distractions, has never left the physical bounds of the state of California her entire life (until now). Let us also assume that Dianna, good person though she is, is quite careless about pulling books off of bookshelves, and has a tendency to cause a rain of books to fall from the shelf as she retrieves her desired volume.

Dianna is desperately in need of a rare book on archaeology. After much research, she discovers that a copy may be found in a small library in Seattle, Washington. She hops into her car and drives to Seattle. Once there, she races to the shelf, finds the book, and pulls it off, precipitating a hail of books. One of these books conks a fellow patron on the head; let's call him Molten Boron. Molten Boron is perturbed, particularly because Dianna, in her excitement, ran from the library without so much as an apology. Molten Boron decides to get even by suing Dianna for negligence.

Assume Molten Boron is a citizen of Washington. Where can he sue Dianna? Technically, he can file a suit in any state or Federal court in the country, but they're likely to just throw it out. The rules of jurisdiction tell us where his case is likely to be taken seriously.

Let's start by recognizing that there are two parallel legal systems in the United States (well, actually, 51 parallel legal systems, but in any given state there are just two). Every state has its own legal system and the federal government has an over-arching legal system with branch offices in each state. The Constitution establishes a division of labor between state and federal courts, ostensibly to prevent the federal government from horning in on the autonomy of the states. Federal courts are authorized to hear matters of federal law (naturally), admiralty cases (law of the seas), patent and copyright cases, suits between states, suits against the federal government, and suits between citizens of different states. These last are called diversity suits, and there'll be a lot said about them later. Every type of suit not in the jurisdiction of the federal courts is the provenance of the state courts. Due to these limitations on what suits the federal courts may hear, the vast majority of cases in this country occur in state courts and are judged on the basis of state law.

This brings us to subject matter jurisdiction. Subject matter jurisdiction is the right of a court to hear the type of case before it. If, in our hypothetical, Molten Boron were a Californian suing Dianna, a Californian, for an incident in the University of California's Doe Library on negligence grounds (a state cause of action), a federal court would have no subject matter jurisdiction over it. It would be unconstitutional for a federal court to hear this case, because it would be a violation of the separation of judicial powers established in Article III. Federal courts lack subject matter jurisdiction over such cases because it would violate State's Rights for them to have such jurisdiction.

At the state level, states generally have trial courts of general jurisdiction. Whereas federal courts can't hear a case unless it is of a type that they are specifically allowed to hear, state courts of general jurisdiction can hear any case unless that type of case is explicitly given to a different court (for example, divorce and custody cases are often explicitly delegated to special family courts). To add a layer of confusion, state courts of general jurisdiction are also given subject matter jurisdiction over all federal law cases unless Congress explicitly forbids them from hearing a type of case (patent law cases, for instance, may only be heard in federal courts). So if you have a federal law dispute, you have a choice of having it heard in either a state or a federal court.

Generally, federal courts may not hear claims arising under state law. The exception is diversity suits. Here a citizen of one state sues a citizen of another on a state law cause of action. Provided he is completely diverse from all defendants, he may bring suit in federal court. The justification for this is that whatever state the plaintiff sues in will be biased toward parties from that state. In order to preserve fairness, you therefore need the neutral federal government to hear the case. This makes sense until you think about it. For one, if a citizen of Wisconsin sues a citizen of Minnesota in Iowa state court (assuming the Iowa court has proper jurisdiction) why would you need the federal government to hear the case in order to prevent bias? It's also worth noting that, on the one hand, federal courts must step in to prevent bias in suits between citizens of different states, because state courts will inevitably be biased towards their own citizens, but, on the other hand, federal courts have subject matter jurisdiction over suits against the federal government, because only the federal government can be trusted to fairly hear suits against itself.

In summary, subject matter jurisdiction is nearly always satisfied if you sue in state court, but satisfied only under specific circumstances in federal courts.

Applied to our hypothetical, subject matter jurisdiction doesn't limit Molten Boron's options with respect to where he sues. Every state with a negligence cause of action (which is to say, every state) will have subject matter jurisdiction. Further, because he is diverse from Dianna, he can sue in any federal court under diversity jurisdiction. Subject matter jurisdiction is not a problem for him.

Personal jurisdiction is another matter. Personal jurisdiction derives from the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments, which guarantee due process of law. The idea is that you can't be held answerable to a given jurisdiction's laws unless you have willingly submitted yourself to them. You submit yourself to a state's laws by living there, doing business there, etc. Molten Boron can't sue Dianna in, say, Alaska because Dianna has no contact with the state whatsoever. She's never been to Alaska, she doesn't want to go to Alaska, she's never had anything to do with it. Alaska can go hang itself for all she cares, so why on earth should Alaska be allowed to haul her into a court in Juneau and make her stand trial for a conking in Washington? In Lockean terms, there is no social contract between Dianna and Alaska. She has nothing to say to it, and it has no more authority over her than does Cambodia.

There are two types of personal jurisdiction: general jurisdiction and minimum contacts jurisdiction. You are under general jurisdiction in a state when you establish residence and deep roots there. For Dianna, this would be California. By living in California, conducting daily life there, doing business there, etc. she has officially submitted herself to the totality of California's laws. She has hung up a shingle on her door saying, "Direct all lawsuits here." The other, more tricky, type of personal jurisdiction is minimum contacts jurisdiction. If you engage in some activity within a state, you can be held liable in any suits relating to that activity. So, per our hypothetical, Dianna has only the barest of contacts with Washington state, she zoomed in, got her book, and zoomed out. But in getting her book, she caused an accident and has been sued for it. When she entered Washington State and retrieved a book, it is said that she willingly submitted herself to all of Washington's laws with respect to that book retrieval.

And now a clarifying twist: Suppose that Molten Boron woke up the morning after the conking, poured himself a cup of coffee, opened the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, and saw on the front page that, with great fanfare, the governor of Oregon had just signed landmark Anti-Conking legislation, providing strict liability and huge punitive awards against those who can be shown to have conked others on the head with books while negligently pulling books off of shelves. Molten Boron sees an opportunity and runs to his lawyer, begging him to find some way of suing Dianna in Oregon. Can he?

Probably not, due to lack of personal jurisdiction. This is in spite of the fact that Dianna has some minimum contacts with the state, insofar as she drove through it to get to Washington. The problem is that she doesn't have the right kind of minimum contacts. To further elaborate: Suppose Dianna did not just drive through Oregon. Suppose, instead, she decided to take a vacation to Oregon and incidentally drove to Seattle. She takes three weeks off from work, spends that time in Portland with friends, then on the final Saturday of her vacation drives up to Seattle, grabs the book, conks Molten Boron, and drives back to California. None of that matters. She spent three weeks in Oregon, but that isn't nearly enough to establish general jurisdiction, and her activities there had nothing to do with the book conking. She could be sued for her driving in Oregon. She could be sued for any accidents incurred by her myriad other activities in Portland. But she can't be sued for the conking in Seattle, because her minimum contacts don't have anything to do with the incident.

(Now, what if Dianna weren't going to the Seattle library for her own leisure, but was rather dispatched there by her boss at the Doe Library? Suppose that she was sent on a tour of a dozen school libraries in the Pacific Northwest, and was told to report back on how each of them manages their stacks. She traveled to Oregon and looked at the libraries at the University of Oregon, Oregon State, the University of Puget Sound, etc. The incident at issue then occurred while she was inspecting the University of Washington's library. Could Molten Boron sue her in Oregon, on the grounds that she was engaged in the generalized business of library inspection, and that she therefore submitted herself to Oregon's laws with respect to library inspections? Quite possibly, but the case would probably still be dismissed for lack of venue, as we shall see).

A final, annoying point. One would generally assume that personal jurisdiction is the opposite of subject matter, with respect to the relation of the State and Federal courts. State courts have general subject matter jurisdiction, while federal courts have narrow subject matter jurisdiction. Contrariwise, state courts have narrow personal jurisdiction while the federal courts have, one would assume, broad personal jurisdiction. After all, everyone in the United States has submitted themselves to the United States's general personal jurisdiction, with the exception of foreigners here for a visit. But such is not the case. In matters of personal jurisdiction, federal district courts adopt the personal jurisdiction standards of whatever state they're sitting in.

So where does this leave Molten Boron? He can sue Dianna in Washington state court, which has minimum contacts personal jurisdiction and general subject matter jurisdiction, in California state court, which has general personal jurisdiction and general subject matter jurisdiction, in Washington federal court, which has minimum contacts personal jurisdiction (referring to the Washington state courts) and diversity subject matter jurisdiction, or California federal court, which has general personal jurisdiction and diversity subject matter jurisdiction.

There is one final problem to be addressed: Venue. Venue asks whether the court being sued in is convenient for the defendant. Of course, the courts can't actually ask the defendant what's most convenient for them, because the defendant will always say that it's most convenient not to be sued at all. Venue comes from statutes passed by congress, not from the constitution. This is important to understand because venue and personal jurisdiction come from different directions but, as a practical matter, tend to reach the same conclusion. So, while they correspond most of the time, sometimes they don't, and understanding where they're coming from will help to explain why they occasionally reach different results.

In order for venue to be proper in federal diversity cases, the defendant must be sued in 1. a court in the federal district where they reside, 2. a court in the district where the incident giving rise to the action occurred, or 3. any other district where the defendant "may be found," but only if the other two cannot be satisfied. The third part is a catch-all that ensures that there is always at least some court in which a person can be sued. A simple analysis of our case shows that venue alters (almost) nothing. Molten Boron can sue Dianna in California, because that's where she resides, or in Washington, because that's where the incident occurred. Venue does impose a limitation on where Molten Boron can sue Dianna in California federal court. California is divided into three federal districts, the northern, central, and southern districts. Assume Dianna lives in Berkeley, in the northern district. Venue prevents Molten Boron from suing her in the Southern district, which would force her to haul herself all the way to Los Angeles to be tried. On the other hand, he can sue her in Washington federal courts, so he can force her to go all the way to Seattle for trial.

Some interesting wrinkles: The Supreme Court, for whatever reason, has upheld one other way of establishing personal jurisdiction: personal service within the state. Suppose Molten Boron really wants to sue Dianna in Oregon, and devises a scheme before she has left Washington. He sets up a roadside stand along the highway Dianna will be traveling, with a big sign offering free vegan snacks for travelers. Dianna stops, walks up to the stand, and is served process by a big, burly process server. In terms of personal jurisdiction, Dianna is, to use the technical legal term, SOL. If the right person hands you the right piece of paper while you're physically within the bounds of a state, you are fully subject to that state's jurisdiction with respect to whatever matter you were served process upon. Personal service doesn't satisfy venue, however, and Molten Boron would still have to find a way of establishing venue for a suit against Dianna in Oregon. The whole personal service in the state thing is something of an antique, and it's a bit surprising that the courts have held onto it. But, there you go.

So that's a case where Molten Boron can establish personal jurisdiction but not venue. How about a case where Molten Boron can establish venue but not personal jurisdiction? This is tricky with people, but relatively easy with corporations. Corporations are held to reside for venue purposes wherever they are incorporated, have significant facilities, have their primary place of business, or conduct significant and regular business. For purposes of personal jurisdiction, however, they are under the general jurisdiction only of the states where they're incorporated and have their primary place of business. Anywhere else they do business or have facilities is subject only to minimum contacts jurisdiction. So let's take the case of Amalgamated Dianna, Inc. Amalgamated Dianna, being an amalgamation, manufactures two entirely distinct products: Widgets, a form of industrial gadget, and vegan snacks. The two aspects of the business are kept largely separate. Amalgamated Dianna is incorporated in Delaware, has its headquarters in California, has a vegan snack plant in Arizona, and a widget factory in Ohio. Molten Boron, a citizen of Wisconsin, buys one of Amalgamated Dianna's vegan snacks, bites into it, and finds a chunk of pork. He sues for breach of contract, defective product manufacture, and mental distress. Any federal court has subject matter jurisdiction, and he can establish venue in California, Delaware, Arizona, and Ohio, because Amalgamated Dianna has facilities there. He could also likely establish venue in Wisconsin, either on grounds that Amalgamated Dianna does substantial business there or because the incident giving rise to the claim occurred there. Personal jurisdiction is a different matter. Suppose Molten Boron has a lawyer friend in Ohio. The lawyer can't, or won't, practice anywhere else, but as a favor he'll take Molten Boron's case free of charge, provided Molten Boron sues in Ohio. The problem is that, while Molten Boron can establish venue in Ohio, Ohio lacks personal jurisdiction in this case. Amalgamated Dianna has a widget factory there, and can be sued there for incidents arising out of its manufacture of widgets. But its vegan snack business has nothing to do with Ohio. Amalgamated Dianna has not submitted itself to Ohio's food safety laws, only its widget manufacturing laws. Personal Service within the state also doesn't work (it applies only to individuals, not corporations). This all makes sense if you understand the different justifications behind venue and personal jurisdiction. Venue is about convenience. It's convenient for Amalgamated Dianna to be sued in Ohio; it has offices there, it has executives there, and presumably it retains Ohio lawyers. Venue is satisfied, in theory and in practice. But Amalgamated Dianna has not submitted itself to Ohio's food safety laws, so Ohio lacks personal jurisdiction.

That's about all I want to say on the subject. Long as this post has been, it's only the general outline of the topic. There's a lot more to talk about, and that's just based on the cursory overview we get in first year Civil Procedure. Next up, if you're lucky: Choice of laws and the Eerie doctrine, determining which laws are used to decide cases when federal courts exercise diversity jurisdiction. Fun!

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This page contains a single entry by Zach published on November 27, 2005 7:39 PM.

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