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Burnham v. Superior Court

Citation. 495 U.S. 604, 110 S. Ct. 2105, 109 L. Ed. 2d 631, 1990 U.S.
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Brief Fact Summary.

Dennis Burnham married Francie Burnham in West Virginia in 1976. In 1977, the couple moved to New Jersey, where their two children were born. In 1987, the couple decided to separate. Mrs. Burnham (Respondent) intended to move to California, so they agreed that she would retain custody of the two children. Shortly before Mrs. Burnham was to move to California, she and Mr. Burnham (Petitioner) agreed that she would file for divorce on the grounds of “irreconcilable differences.”

Synopsis of Rule of Law.

Jurisdiction can be exercised over an individual through his presence in the forum state. This is true even if the individual is a non-resident of the forum state, who came to the forum state only briefly. Personal jurisdiction within the forum may be obtained as long as service was made upon the individual while he was within the forum state.


After the Petitioner and his wife agreed to divorce, Mr. Burnham filed a Petition for Divorce in New Jersey based on grounds of “desertion.” However, Petitioner did not obtain the issuance of a summons nor did he attempt to serve her with process. Mrs. Burnham was not successful in convincing Mr. Burnham to heed their prior agreement. Therefore, in 1988, Mrs. Burnham filed suit for divorce in California. In January, 1988, Petitioner visited San Francisco, California as part of a business trip and to visit his children. While in San Francisco, Petitioner was served with a copy of Mrs. Burnham’s divorce petition. Petitioner sought relief in the California state courts, asserting that the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment prohibited California courts from obtaining jurisdiction over him because he lacked “minimum contacts” with the state. His only contacts with the state were a few short visits to conduct business and to visit his children. The Superior Court denied his Motion to Quash, and the Court of Appeals of California denied his Petition for Writ of Mandamus. The court held that physical presence in the state when service is obtained is sufficient personal jurisdiction.


Whether the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment prevents jurisdiction of a state over a nonresident, who was served with process while temporarily present in that state, for an action, which is totally unrelated to his activities in that state?


International Shoe Co. v. Washington, stated that the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment requires that a state not violate “traditional notions of fair play and substantial justice.” It is well established that a state may obtain personal jurisdiction over a non-resident by service within that state. Therefore, it cannot be said that physical presence within a state violates “traditional notions of fair play and substantial justice.” California can constitutionally assert personal jurisdiction over Petitioner based solely on his presence in the state at the time of service, even though his presence was brief, and there were virtually no other contacts with California. Concurrence. Justice White wrote an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment. Justice Brennan, with whom Justices Marshall, Blackmun and O’Connor joined, wrote an opinion concurring in the judgment (J. Brennan concurrence). Justice Stevens wrote an opinion concurring in the judgment. J. White: Jurisdiction over a non-resident by personal service in the forum state, alone, is so widely accepted that it cannot be invalidated at this time. J. Brennan: He agrees that jurisdiction can be granted through personal service upon a defendant while in the forum. Therefore, J. Brennan can concur in the judgment. However, J. Brennan does not believe that such a rule should remain forever unexamined due to its prior acceptance. J. Stevens: The historical evidence leads to the conclusion that this is a very easy case to decide. Personal jurisdiction based on physical presence in the forum state alone should be upheld.


This case shows that not all bases for the assertion of in personam jurisdiction must be treated alike and subjected to the “minimum contacts” analysis of International Shoe. The court firmly stands behind the notion that jurisdiction based upon physical presence alone, no matter how short the duration, has been, and will continue to be, a hallmark of the constitutional guarantee of due process.

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