Burnham v. Superior Court

Following is the case brief for Burnham v. Superior Court, 495 U.S. 604 (1990)

Case Summary of Burnham v. Superior Court:

  • While traveling to California to conduct business and visit his children, petitioner was served with divorce papers by his estranged wife.
  • Petitioner moved to quash service, claiming that California did not have jurisdiction over him because the personal service of process violated the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
  • The California trial and appellate courts rejected petitioner’s argument, denying the motion to quash.
  • The U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the lower court’s decision.  It held that personal service of a nonresident in the forum State confers personal jurisdiction consistent with the Due Process Clause.
  • While the Court was unanimous on the result, it was divided on how to evaluate the due process claim.

Burnham v. Superior Court Case Brief

Statement of the Facts:

Petitioner Dennis Burnham married Francis Burnham.  They subsequently moved to New Jersey and had children.  Ten years later, they decided to separate.  They agreed that Mrs. Burnham would move to California with the children, and that she would file for divorce in California.  Petitioner, however, filed for divorce in New Jersey.  Mrs. Burnham then filed for divorce in California.  Later that year, when petitioner was in California visiting his children, he was served with the California divorce suit.

Petitioner made a special appearance in California to quash the process served on him. He claimed that, based on his very few contacts with California, the State did not have personal jurisdiction over him.

Procedural History:

  • The California trial court denied petitioner’s motion to quash the service of process.
  • The California Court of Appeals affirmed the denial of the motion.
  • The U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari.

Issue and Holding:

Does the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause deny a State jurisdiction over a nonresident who was personally served in the State although the person was only in the State temporarily and for reasons not relate to the lawsuit?  No.


The decision of the California Court of Appeals is affirmed.

Rule of Law or Legal Principle Applied:

Personal service of a nonresident to establish personal jurisdiction over that person in the forum State is not a denial of the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.


The Court has long relied on traditional principles in American law to determine whether the assertion of personal jurisdiction is consistent with the notion of due process.  Legal precedent, from old English law to present cases, strongly demonstrates that personal service within a State’s borders properly confers that State’s jurisdiction over a person.

Further, petitioner’s argument that “continuous and systematic” contacts with a State are necessary to establish personal jurisdiction is unavailing.  Nothing in the Court’s jurisprudence would suggest that presence in a State is insufficient to establish personal jurisdiction.

Concurring Opinion (White):

The rule allowing jurisdiction over a nonresident by personal service in the forum State is so widely accepted that it could not be struck down without a showing that it is arbitrary and lacking in common sense in most if not all cases.  Absent that showing, personal service in the forum State is sufficient for jurisdiction and does not violate due process.

Concurring Opinion (Brennan):

While Justice Scalia’s opinion representing the opinion of the Court comes to the correct conclusion, the jurisdictional rule in this case is consistent with due process not solely because it has been the traditional rule throughout history.  It is also important to analyze whether the rule is fair.

In that vein, because nonresidents take advantage of a State’s laws and protections, for however long they are in the State, they must also be subject to the jurisdiction of the State’s courts.  Thus, personal service of a nonresident in the forum State to confer jurisdiction does not violate due process.

Concurring Opinion (Stevens):

There is a concern that the Court’s opinion may be too broad.  In this case, however, historical consensus, fairness, and common sense all dictate that the service in this case was consistent with due process.


Burnham v. Superior Court is essentially about whether personal service of a nonresident who is temporarily in the forum is consistent with the “traditional notions of fair play and substantial justice” discussed in the famous case International Shoe Co. v. Washington, 326 U.S. 310 (1946).  While a unanimous Court determined that it is, the Justices were divided over how to evaluate the due process issue.

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