Frances and Dennis Burnham lived in New Jersey with their two daughters
when the decided to end their marriage. Frances moved with the girls to
California while Dennis remained in New Jersey and continued to run his
business. Frances persuaded Dennis to delay filing for divorce for 18
months so she could file in California. By filing in California, they
could bypass New Jersey's fault system for divorces to California's
no-fault divorce procedures, and Dennis agreed. However, instead of waiting
the 18 months, after the required six months for residency purposes, Frances
filed for divorce. Dennis learned of Frances's action and filed his
own action for divorce in New Jersey.
Shortly thereafter, Dennis travelled to California on a three-day business
trip and to visit with his daughters. Frances, not wanting to miss a good
opportunity, had Dennis served with the California divorce papers in her
own home while he was visiting with the children.
Dennis did not believe that he was subject to California law. He was not
resident of the state. He did not have property within the state, and
he rarely visited the state. Therefore, he believed California did not
have personal jurisdiction over him. Without personal jurisdiction, courts
lack authority to tell people what to do. He filed what is known as a
"special appearance" in the California Court solely to argue
that the court lacked jurisdiction. If he had not, a court might make
a decision against his interests in his absence and then request a court
in New Jersey enforce the California decision.
The trial court determined that Dennis's appearances in California
were enough to find personal jurisdiction and held him liable to California's
family laws. Dennis appealed, but both the California Appellate Court
and the California Supreme Court agreed with the trial court. Dennis appealed
to the United States Supreme Court.
The United State Supreme Court, in a unanimous decision, agreed with the
California courts, calling the personal jurisdiction "transient jurisdiction."
Final note: News media questioned Dennis why he would spend so much money
arguing personal jurisdiction instead of just allowing the divorce proceedings
to be determined by California law. Dennis believed he had a better chance
of obtaining custody of his children and retaining more of his business
through New Jersey's divorce laws than through California's.