I was raised in the deep South during the 1970’s. One of my all-time favorite movies, which was filmed during that same time period and at a location not too far from where I grew up, is Deliverance. It tells the story of four men who go on a river rafting trip down the Chattooga River, only to run into some mountain men who don’t exactly welcome them with open arms. In the most famous scene (“squeal like a pig”) one of the mountain men rapes a member of the group. But the scene that sticks with me the most is the one that immediately follows.
The group is arguing what they should do now that they’ve killed the rapist. Do they notify the local police and tell them what happened, or do they just keep quiet, bury the body, and hope no one ever finds out? One of the men argues for telling the police. “It is a matter of the law!” he yells. The Burt Reynolds character yells back, “The law? What law? Where’s the law?” He goes on, “And I’ll be damned if I’m gonna stand trial here when this man’s aunt or uncle, maybe his mommy or daddy, is sittin’ in the jury box!” The men end up taking a vote, and they decide to bury the guy and leave the State of Georgia – for good.
What always struck me about that scene was how scared the men were about the prospect of having to stand trial far away from home. Even though they would probably have had a good defense to any murder charges, they weren’t about to take any chances. They understood that the locals would probably view them as outsiders and convict. Their fear was so great that it overcame any desire to do what most people would consider to be the “right thing” to do, which would be to call the police and “let the justice system work.”
What the group understood is that the justice system doesn’t always work, and certainly not perfectly. But more importantly, they also understood the power that courts have over the people that are within their reach. In the law, this power is referred to as “personal jurisdiction.” It is the power of a court over a person to make rulings and enter binding judgments. It is an awesome power. And it is the driving force behind this legal blog.
To be sure, the law of personal jurisdiction is not for everyone. It’s procedural in nature, and for that reason alone many lawyers don’t want anything to do with it. They find it dry and boring. But not me. To me it’s fascinating for a host of reasons, not the least of which is that every case is different. The issues it raises are often complex, sometimes cutting edge, and occasionally bleed into more substantive areas of the law. It involves Constitutional due process rights and principles of fundamental fairness. It’s a perfect fit for a lawyer like me who likes to bring all of his analytical and advocacy skills to bear for a client.
Since the concept of personal jurisdiction applies to individuals and businesses alike, the issue whether a court has personal jurisdiction over one of the parties can arise in just about any type of lawsuit. It comes into play not only when individuals are dragged into courts outside their home state, but also when businesses are sued in states where they have no substantial business presence or meaningful business contacts.
Personal jurisdiction is generally not a hot topic among lawyers, so you’re not likely to overhear them arguing the finer points over dinner or at some lawyer hangout. What most lawyers know about personal jurisdiction they learned in law school. And often to their delight, most of what they learned poured out of their ears as soon as they exited the bar exam. Sure, some lawyers might still vaguely recall the concept of “minimum contacts,” but for most others it’s likely a distant memory. I’m one of the few who still finds it interesting and challenging, especially when I get to apply its principles in real life cases.
While you might think this area of the law is already well settled, I assure you it is not. The law of personal jurisdiction is constantly evolving. That’s partly because our world is changing. Technological advances and new means of communication are impacting how courts analyze these issues. New decisions are being released by the courts every day. Just within the past several weeks, the U.S. Supreme Court has issued two new decisions in this area, Daimler AG v. Baumanand Walden v. Fiore.
My love and passion for this area of the law is what prompted me to create this blog. In the coming months, we’ll explore these legal decisions and other aspects of personal jurisdiction in more detail. I’ll share some of my personal insights which come from having been involved in cases where my client successfully challenged personal jurisdiction. And along the way I’ll offer some practical tips to out-of-state lawyers who might have a client that has been sued in Texas. I hope you’ll join me for what should be an interesting journey!
Written By: Alex Beard