Commentary and analysis of five decisions rendered by the Supreme Court during its 1989-90 Term. The article discusses the Court’s opinions in Burnham v. Superior Court of California; Carden v. Arkoma Associates; Tafflin v. Levitt; Howlett v. Rose; and Ferens v. John Deere.
In Burnham, the Court unanimously upheld the exercise of personl jurisdiction over a non-resident defendant by a California state court based on the concept of tag jurisdiction. But, the Justices fragmented in a series of 4-4-1 opinions, issuing a badly fractured series of concurrences. While Justice Scalia argued on behalf of the ancient doctrine of transient jurisdiction, Justice Brennan counter-argued that all assertions of personal jurisdiction must be evaluated against due process minimum contacts jurisprudence after Shaffer v. Heitner.
In Carden, the Court held that a federal court must look to the citizenship of all a partnership’s limited and general partners in determining the existence of diversity jurisdiction. In Tafflin, the Court resolved a conflict among the circuit courts concerning whether state courts could exert concurrent jurisdiction over civil RICO claims, requiring federal abstention in deference to state court jurisdiction. The court held that there is nothing in RICO’s explicit language to oust state courts of RICO jurisdiction, a conclusion supported by the statute’s legislative history.
In Howlett, a unanimous Court chastised a Florida court for applying a state sovereign immunity defense to dismiss a federal civil rights action brought against a local school board, The court held that states as well as federal courts have jurisdiction over federal civil rights claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. And in Ferens, the Court extended the rule in Van Dusen v. Barrack – pertaining to application law after a transfer of venue – to plaintiff-initiated transfer. The Court held that in cases in which a plaintiff transfers a case to another federal court, that court must apply the law of the transferor court.
Linda S. Mullenix, Supreme Court Review: Badly Fractured Decisions Muddy Cases On Venue, National Law Journal, Aug. 13, 1990, at 99.