Very Little Can Be Enough

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.

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