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Personal Jurisdiction: The Enigma of Minimum Contacts


In International Shoe, the Supreme Court held that the courts of a state may exercise personal jurisdiction over a defendant if she has such minimum contacts with the state that it would be fair to require her to return and defend a lawsuit in that state. The Court did not elucidate this somewhat circular proposition by providing a list of what minimum contacts are sufficient, nor did it base the test on the number of contacts with the state. Instead, the Court suggested that whether jurisdiction is permissible depends on the “quality and nature” of the contacts with the state. 326 U.S. at 319. In some cases, the Court indicated, even a single contact will do, but not contacts that are “casual” or “isolated.”

This language is too vague to provide much guidance in applying the minimum contacts test, but the rationale of International Shoe is more helpful. The Shoe Court suggested that a corporation that chooses to conduct activities within a state accepts (implicitly, of course) a reciprocal duty to answer for its in-state activities in the local courts. A defendant should understand that her activities within the state will have an impact there, that those activities may lead to controversies and lawsuits there, and that the state has a right to enforce the orderly conduct of affairs within its borders by adjudicating disputes that arise from such in-state activities. The defendant who deliberately chooses to take advantage of the “benefits and protections of the laws” (326 U.S. at 319) of a state will not be heard to cry “foul” when that state holds her to account in its courts for her in-state acts.

This rationale suggests an important limitation on minimum contacts jurisdiction. Because the court’s power to exercise jurisdiction derives from the defendant’s voluntary relation to the state, the power should be limited to cases arising out of that relation. International Shoe implies such a limitation, and subsequent cases have confirmed that minimum contacts jurisdiction is limited to claims arising from (or, perhaps, related to) the defendant’s contacts with the forum state. In Shoe, for example, the corporation was held subject to personal jurisdiction in Washington for claims arising out of its shoe sales in that state, but the corporation could not have been required to defend a claim in Washington arising from shoe sales in Texas under a minimum contacts analysis. Sales in Texas are unrelated to Washington; the corporation would certainly not expect to be sued in Washington by a Texas shoe buyer, nor does the corporation take advantage of the benefits and protections of the laws of Washington by its activities in Texas. The analysis must always consider the relationship between the contacts that gave rise to the suit and the state where the suit is brought. Miscellaneous contacts are not minimum contacts. It is the contacts that spawned the lawsuit that are crucial to the minimum contacts analysis.

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