Personal Jurisdiction – Definition

Cite this article as: Jason Mance Gordon, "Personal Jurisdiction – Definition," in The Business Professor, updated January 3, 2015, last accessed March 30, 2020,
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What is Personal Jurisdiction?
What is Personal Jurisdiction? A court acquires personal jurisdiction over a defendant through service of process.

Next Article: Federal Personal Jurisdiction


What is “Personal Jurisdiction”?

A court must have both subject-matter jurisdiction and personal jurisdiction in every case. While subject-matter jurisdiction regards the court’s authority to hear a certain type of case, personal jurisdiction regards the authority for a court to exercise jurisdiction over an individual. That is, the court must have the legal authority to adjudicate the matter involving the specific individual. Determining whether a court has personal jurisdiction over an individual is different for criminal and civil cases.

Criminal Case

In a criminal case, a court has personal jurisdiction over the defendant if the defendant committed the alleged criminal conduct within the court’s geographic jurisdiction. A federal court will have personal jurisdiction over a defendant committing any criminal activity within the United States, though the specific district in which to prosecute the case is specified by Rule 18 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure. A state court will have personal jurisdiction over a defendant committing any criminal activity within that state’s borders. There is a basis for a state court to exercise personal jurisdiction over a defendant who committed a criminal act outside of the state if there is a detrimental impact on the state.

  • Relevant Law: Strassheim v Daily, 221 US 280, 285; (1911), Justice Oliver Wendel Holmes wrote, that a state properly “may punish a defendant for acts committed outside the state if those acts were intended to, and actually did, produce detrimental effects within the state”.

Civil Cases

Establishing personal jurisdiction in civil cases requires that the court serve the defendant with a summons (or otherwise provide sufficient legal notice of the proceeding), also known as “service of process”. A summons, along with the complaint, gives a defendant legal notice of the allegations against her and directs her to appear before the court on a given date. The legal requirements for serving a summons on someone differ between state and federal courts and are discussed below.

In a criminal case, personal jurisdiction is generally not an issue. An individual would assert a defense to the alleged crime rather than assert a lack of personal jurisdiction. In a civil case, however, personal jurisdiction is a hotly debated topic. This is particularly true for businesses that place products into the market for sale. There is a great deal of uncertainty as to what amount of sales activity in a state will subject the business to personal jurisdiction in that state’s courts.

Discussion: Why are the requirements for personal jurisdiction different for criminal cases versus civil cases? Is there an argument for extending a state’s personal jurisdiction over alleged criminal activity carried on outside of the state’s jurisdiction?

Discussion Input

  • A state has police power to protect the health, welfare, and morality of its people. Protecting its citizens from criminal conduct occurring within the state is paramount. However, the state has little ability to protect its citizens from criminal conduct occurring outside of its borders. To exercise personal jurisdiction over an individuals with minimum contacts with the state must be balanced against the Due Process rights of the individuals. Exercising criminal jurisdiction over a defendant puts in jeopardy their liberty and fundamental constitutional rights. There is an argument that these rights are too strong and fundamental to infringe upon if the individual did not commit the criminal conduct within the state.

Practice Question: Clarence lives in California. While he was visiting South Carolina, he was driving while intoxicated and crashed his vehicle. The wreck injured a bystander, Devon. Clarence, afraid that he would be arrested, quickly fled the scene of the accident. The next day he returned to California. What are the personal jurisdiction issues if the prosecutor’s office in South Carolina seeks to bring criminal charges against Clarence for driving under the influence and leaving the scene of an accident? What are the personal jurisdiction issues if Devon wishes to sue Clarence?

Proposed Answer

  • The SC prosecutor would need to seek indictment and secure an arrest warrant before subjecting Clarence to prosecution within the state. To secure the arrest warrant, she would need to show the court that the criminal conduct occurred within the state, thus giving the state personal jurisdiction over Clarence for purposes of prosecution. The warrant would then be sent to California for the purpose of arresting and extraditing Clarence back to SC. For civil purposes, Deven could file a complaint against Devon in SC. He would need to demonstrate the Devon had “minimum contacts” with the state sufficient to satisfy the SC long-arm statute.

Academic Research

Dodson, Scott, Plaintiff Personal Jurisdiction and Venue Transfer (August 7, 2018). Michigan Law Review, Vol. 117, No. 6, 2019; UC Hastings Research Paper No. 300. Available at SSRN:

Sterk, Stewart E., Personal Jurisdiction and Choice of Law (January 23, 2013). Iowa Law Review, Vol. 98, No. 3, 2013; Cardozo Legal Studies Research Paper No. 382. Available at SSRN:

Solimine, Michael, The Quiet Revolution in Personal Jurisdiction (January 1998). Tulane Law Review, Vol. 83, No. 2, 1998. Available at SSRN:

Robertson, Cassandra Burke and Rhodes, Charles W. (Rocky), The Business of Personal Jurisdiction (May 26, 2017). 68 Case Western Reserve Law Review 775 (2017); Case Legal Studies Research Paper No. 2017-11. Available at SSRN:

Steinman, Adam, Access to Justice, Rationality, and Personal Jurisdiction (October 19, 2018). Vanderbilt Law Review, Vol. 71, No. 1401, 2018; U of Alabama Legal Studies Research Paper No. 3270046. Available at SSRN:

Nash, Jonathan, National Personal Jurisdiction (February 6, 2018). Emory Legal Studies Research Paper. Available at SSRN: or

Dodson, Scott, Personal Jurisdiction and Aggregation (February 23, 2018). 113 Northwestern University Law Review 1 (2018); UC Hastings Research Paper No. 273. Available at SSRN:

Florey, Katherine, What Personal Jurisdiction Doctrine Does – And What it Should Do (July 10, 2017). UC Davis Legal Studies Research Paper; Florida State University Law Review, Vol. 43, No. 4, 2016. Available at SSRN:

Dodge, William S. and Dodson, Scott, Personal Jurisdiction and Aliens (August 22, 2017). 116 Michigan Law Review 1205 (2018); UC Hastings Research Paper No. 249. Available at SSRN:

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