Playing on TS Eliot’s famous essay, that is the title of the third entry in my Law and Tradition series at the Liberty Fund’s blog. In the post, I discuss the very interesting plurality opinion in Burhnam v. Superior Court, one of the Court’s highly traditionalist opinions (and one perhaps not so commonly known outside civil procedure circles).
From the end:
Burnham involved the…question whether the state of California could assert personal jurisdiction in a divorce action over a defendant who was physically present within the state. The defendant had entered California on business and to visit his children, and he claimed that the more flexible approach for defendants without physical presence should apply in his case as well. The Court disagreed:
The distinction between what is needed to support novel procedures and what is needed to sustain traditional ones is fundamental….The short of the matter is that jurisdiction based on physical presence alone constitutes due process because it is one of the continuing traditions of our legal system that define the due process standard of “traditional notions of fair play and substantial justice.” That standard was developed by analogy to “physical presence,” and it would be perverse to say it could now be turned against that touchstone of jurisdiction.
In so holding, the Burnham plurality denied that a state’s exercise of personal jurisdiction over a defendant depends solely on measuring the extent of his contacts with the state against abstract, evolving, and ultimately subjective tests of fairness or justice.
The plurality also noted that its methodology differed significantly from Shaffer v. Heitner, in which the Court had stated that “traditional notions of fair play and substantial justice” may be “readily offended by the perpetuation of ancient forms that are no longer justified.” Justice Brennan’s concurrence in Burnham likewise urged the Court to apply “contemporary notions of due process.”
The Burnham plurality responded that it was doing just that, for “contemporary notions of due process” just exactly are the “traditional notions of fair play and substantial justice” that “are applied and have always been applied in the United States.” These notions are not the playthings of the justices. They are not judicially evolving notions. Neither are they merely historical notions. They are traditional notions. Personal jurisdiction over a defendant physically present within a state may be reformulated as “fair” (as Justice Brennan urged) because the defendant could “reasonably” have expected it. But his expectation would have been reasonable only because personal jurisdiction in such circumstances is traditional: “fairness,” the plurality said, “exists here because there is a continuing tradition.” The tradition can change, of course, if a state wishes to change it. But the overwhelming majority of states had not, and it was not the justices’ proper role to do so.
The plurality opinion in Burnham is, in sum, one of the Court’s most traditional decisions. And in its response to Justice Brennan’s progressive understanding of the judicial role, one is reminded of Eliot’s famous essay, Tradition and the Individual Talent: “Someone said: ‘The dead writers are remote from us because we know so much more than they did.’ Precisely, and they are that which we know.”