A Primer on Personal Jurisdiction

Thurgood Marshall U.S. Courthouse by Heather Paul (CC BY-ND 2.0 DEED)

Personal jurisdiction (or “authority to adjudicate”) refers to the authority of a court to make a binding determination with respect to a person or a thing. In personam jurisdiction refers to the authority to determine the rights or obligations of a person (including a business). In rem jurisdiction refers to the authority to determine ownership of a piece of property.

The question of personal jurisdiction is fundamental and profound because courts are powerful: they can invoke state power to enforce judgments and punish those who don’t comply with their orders. This primer provides an overview of personal jurisdiction as understood and applied by U.S. courts. It starts by describing the constitutional limits on personal jurisdiction. It then maps the legislative landscape for state and federal courts. Finally, it describes the current state of personal jurisdiction over foreign (non-U.S.) defendants.

Constitutional Limits on Personal Jurisdiction

In Pennoyer v. Neff (1878), the Supreme Court explained that the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment limits the exercise of personal jurisdiction by state courts. Pennoyer defined those limits in strictly territorial terms: states had authority over all persons and property that could be found within their borders, including defendants who voluntarily appeared to defend the suit, but

no power to assert authority over persons or property located outside their borders. That strictly territorial approach proved difficult to maintain, however, as courts struggled to determine when a corporation could be “found” within a state, or when a nonresident who caused harm within a state could be forced to return to the state to answer for that wrong. State legislatures experimented with statutes that implied consent to suit based on certain activity; some of these statutes survived constitutional scrutiny while others did not.

In the pathmarking decision of International Shoe Co. v. Washington (1945), the Supreme Court attempted to rationalize these precedents by articulating a new framework for understanding personal jurisdiction. It famously held that “due process requires only that, . . . if [the defendant] be not present within the territory of the forum, he have certain minimum contacts with it such that the maintenance of the suit does not offend ‘traditional notions of fair play and substantial justice.’” International Shoe remains the controlling paradigm for personal jurisdiction in the United States.

General Jurisdiction

Since the 1980s, the Supreme Court has distinguished between “general” and “specific” personal jurisdiction. General jurisdiction means that the court can hear any dispute against the defendant, even if the dispute has nothing to do with the forum. Pennoyer was a general jurisdiction regime: if the state had jurisdiction based on the physical presence of persons or property, it could hear just about any dispute against that defendant.

Today the scope of general personal jurisdiction is more limited. In Burnham v. Superior Court of California (1990), the Supreme Court reaffirmed that in-person service of process on an individual within a state (known as transient or “tag” jurisdiction) establishes general personal jurisdiction over that individual: the state court can hear almost any cause of action against that individual, even if the state has no connection to the cause of action or to the defendant other than the fact of local service. And in Daimler AG v. Bauman (2014), the Supreme Court held that a state has general personal jurisdiction over any defendant that is “at home” in the state. According to Daimler, an individual is “at home” in their place of domicile, while corporations are typically “at home” in their place of incorporation and their principal place of business. Daimler significantly curtailed the exercise of general personal jurisdiction over businesses, which had previously been understood to exist in any state in which the company did significant business.

Specific Jurisdiction

Specific personal jurisdiction, by contrast, requires a connection between the defendant, the dispute, and the forum. By the end of the 1980s, the Supreme Court had developed a three-part test for specific personal jurisdiction. First, the defendant must “purposefully avail” itself of the forum, meaning that its contacts with the forum are volitional. Second, the dispute must “arise out of or relate to” the defendant’s contacts with the forum. Third, the exercise of jurisdiction must not be unreasonable, which is assessed by considering the parties’ interests, the forum state’s interests, and the broader shared interests of the states. (In practice, if the first two requirements of purposeful availment and relationship are met, courts rarely find the exercise of jurisdiction to be unreasonable.)

Jurisdiction Based on Consent

Parties can consent to personal jurisdiction in advance through forum selection clauses in contracts or after a dispute arises by appearing in court without objecting to the court’s assertion of personal jurisdiction. Lawmakers may also be able to establish consent by statute. The Supreme Court’s most recent personal jurisdiction decision, Mallory v. Norfolk Southern Railway Co. (2023), held that the Due Process Clause did not bar the exercise of general personal jurisdiction on the basis of a state statute requiring a company to consent to general personal jurisdiction if registering to do business within the state. It is not clear yet how broadly this consent-by-statute basis of general personal jurisdiction will reach. Five Justices in Mallory also appeared to agree that International Shoe only applies to defendants who are absent from the state, which may signal a broader movement away from International Shoe’s paradigm.

Legislative Limits on Personal Jurisdiction

Separate from the constitutional limits on personal jurisdiction is the question of statutory authority: has a legislature authorized the court to exercise jurisdiction in a given case? State statutes authorizing jurisdiction that were passed after International Shoe are often referred to as “long-arm statutes” because they leveraged International Shoe’s paradigm to assert jurisdiction over defendants who are not currently in the state. Some states, including New York, have enumerated specific bases for personal jurisdiction in their statutes; other states, most famously California, have instead authorized their courts to exercise personal jurisdiction up to the constitutional limit.

In federal courts, the exercise of personal jurisdiction is governed by Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 4(k). Rule 4(k)(1)(A) links personal jurisdiction in federal courts to that of state courts: it allows federal courts to exercise personal jurisdiction to the same extent as the courts of the state in which the federal court sits. But other provisions of Rule 4(k) extend the personal jurisdiction of federal courts beyond state limits. Rule 4(k)(1)(C), for example, permits federal courts to exercise personal jurisdiction when specifically authorized by a federal statute.

Rule 4(k)(2) provides for broader personal jurisdiction when the claim arises under federal law and no individual state would have personal jurisdiction over the defendant for that claim. In that situation, a federal court can exercise personal jurisdiction as long as doing so is consistent with the U.S. Constitution. In conducting this due process analysis, federal courts use the same specific personal jurisdiction analysis that the Supreme Court has developed for state courts, except that the defendant’s minimum contacts (and the potential unreasonableness of exercising jurisdiction) are evaluated in terms of the United States as a whole. (For examples, see here and here.)

Some federal judges have begun to question whether the due process analysis developed under the Fourteenth Amendment, which limits states’ power, is or should be the same as the due process analysis required by the Fifth Amendment, which limits the federal government’s power. This would mean that International Shoe’s paradigm, which was developed in the context of the Fourteenth Amendment, might not apply to a Rule 4(k)(2) analysis. No federal appellate court has yet adopted this position, however, and the Supreme Court has not addressed it.

Personal Jurisdiction over Foreign Defendants

Foreign defendants will be subject to specific personal jurisdiction in a U.S. court only if there is a relationship between the defendant, the forum, and the dispute. That requires the foreign defendant to have volitionally formed a connection with the United States and for the dispute to be related to those contacts. For state law claims (including most claims derived from the common law), those connections must be with the forum state. Scattered contacts across a number of states may be insufficient to give rise to specific personal jurisdiction in any one state, as the Supreme Court recognized in J. McIntyre Machinery, Ltd. v. Nicastro (2011). However, if the claim is based on federal law, including any federal statute, the defendant’s contacts across states can be aggregated under Rule 4(k)(2) to establish specific personal jurisdiction, or the statute itself may authorize nationwide service of process (which effectively approves the exercise of personal jurisdiction to the maximum extent allowed by the Fifth Amendment). Finally, at the third step of the specific personal jurisdiction analysis (reasonableness), the defendant’s foreign domicile and considerations of international comity may weigh against the exercise of personal jurisdiction.

After Daimler largely restricted the exercise of general personal jurisdiction to the defendant’s “home” jurisdiction, defendants domiciled outside of the United States are typically not subject to general (or all-purpose) personal jurisdiction in the United States. In other words, foreign defendants cannot typically be sued for causes of action that are unconnected to the United States. Daimler thus significantly narrowed the scope of personal jurisdiction over foreign companies doing business in the United States.

Some pockets of general personal jurisdiction over foreign defendants remain, however. Individuals domiciled in foreign countries can be subject to general personal jurisdiction if they are personally served with process while physically present in the United States. The Supreme Court’s recent Mallory decision suggests that legislatures can link consent to general personal jurisdiction to a foreign company’s registration to do business within the state. It has yet to be seen how far this consent-by-statute rationale can be extended. In addition, U.S. courts will typically give effect to forum selection clauses in contracts, which can obviate a specific personal jurisdiction analysis. Finally, the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act confers personal jurisdiction over foreign sovereigns and their agencies and instrumentalities, but only if (and to the extent that) a statutory exception to immunity applies.


After a period of relative stability, the U.S. law of personal jurisdiction is in flux. Lower courts are grappling with how far consent-by-statute can extend after Mallory; when specific personal jurisdiction over corporations doing extensive business within a state can be established; whether forum selection clauses can justify personal jurisdiction over non-signatories to the contract; and how to evaluate jurisdiction in cases involving online commerce. Meanwhile, some judges and Justices have begun questioning the very paradigm of International Shoe and have expressed interest in a more originalist understanding of personal jurisdiction, especially in the context of the Fifth Amendment. The Roberts Court has decided eight personal jurisdiction cases since 2011, but it seems likely that more are yet to come.