Making Sense of Sovereignty: A Historical Understanding of Personal Jurisdiction from Pennoyer to Nicastro

Voils, Kyle | April 25, 2016

How can we make sense of sovereignty’s role in Supreme Court personal jurisdiction doctrine? The Supreme Court has once again raised this question with its plurality decision in J. McIntyre Machinery, Ltd. v. Nicastro, which endorsed a personal jurisdiction doctrine based on sovereign authority of forum states. Scholarly reaction to Nicastro has largely been negative, as scholars argue both that, descriptively, sovereignty considerations have long not played a role in personal jurisdiction, and that, normatively, such considerations ought not play a role in personal jurisdiction. This Note concerns only the former contention, that sovereignty’s role in personal jurisdiction largely faded after the Supreme Court’s landmark decision in International Shoe Co. v. Washington. Contrary to recent scholarly opinion, the Court’s personal jurisdiction doctrine has, from Pennoyer to Nicastro, always embraced a robust consideration of states’ sovereign authority. Indeed, even International Shoe, when considered in appropriate historical context, shows the Court’s continued, albeit narrowed, respect for sovereign authority. Thus, this Note argues that in order to clear up recent scholarly confusion concerning sovereignty’s role in personal jurisdiction, we must first understand that Nicastro represents a continuation, rather than an unexpected revival, of sovereignty considerations bearing on personal jurisdiction determinations.