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Personal jurisdiction, Court access, Supreme Court, Fairness, Purposeful contact


Personal jurisdiction is integral to access to justice. Without a convenient court, plaintiffs’ efforts to vindicate claims (and society’s interest in private enforcement of law) may be thwarted. After considerable engagement in between 1977 and 1990, the Supreme Court did not decide a personal jurisdiction case between 1990 and 2011. This Symposium addresses what the Court has done regarding personal jurisdiction in the “new era” that started in 2011. That year brought a specific jurisdiction decision, J. McIntyre Machinery, Ltd. v. Nicastro, and a general jurisdiction decision, Goodyear Dunlop Tires Operations, S.A. v. Brown. The former broke no significant new doctrinal ground, but the latter began a remarkable contraction of general jurisdiction. We did not know it at the time, but that contraction would have a profound impact on specific jurisdiction by forcing a change in focus: from whether the defendant had forged a purposeful contact with the forum to whether the plaintiff’s claim is sufficiently connected to the defendant’s purposeful contact.

The Supreme Court is now caught up in this new focus: consider its 2017 decision in Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. v. Superior Court and its 2021 effort in Ford Motor Co. v. Montana Eighth Judicial District Court. In Ford, there are hopeful signs that the Court recognizes that its general jurisdiction decisions wrought more change than it appeared to recognize before. Ford is the first case in the Court’s new era in which plaintiffs prevailed on the question of personal jurisdiction.

Far more significantly, it is the first case since 1957 in which the Court supported a finding of specific jurisdiction by appealing to considerations of the “fair play and substantial justice” prong of International Shoe Co. v. Washington. Ford leaves a great many questions unresolved. But it brings hope that the Court may be invigorating the role of fairness or reasonableness, which it had long subjugated to other considerations in the International Shoe canon. After six decades of indifference, Ford may signal that “fair play and substantial justice” may start to realize its potential to enhance court access.

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Alabama Law Review