On State Court Jurisdiction, SCOTUS Holds the Line

While it’s apt to get lost in news coverage of this morning’s bigger rulings, a moment should be set aside to applaud today’s solid 8-1 Supreme Court decision in Bristol-Myers Squibb, together with the related 8-0 outcome from May 30 in the case of BNSF v. Tyrrell. Both cases arose from state courts’ attempts to grab jurisdiction over out-of-state corporations for purposes of hearing lawsuits arising from out-of-state conduct affecting out-of-state complainants. And in both instances—with only Justice Sonia Sotomayor still balking—the Justices made clear that some states’ wish to act as nationwide regulators does not allow them to stretch the constitutional limits on their jurisdiction that far. 

For background on the cases, see our April post. We wondered then whether the consensus of Justices displayed in the benchmark 2014 Daimler case would endure rather than be splintered, and the answer was yes, it did and has. Justice Sotomayor, sticking to a once popular position, is still convinced that if states want to do a certain amount of long-arm collaring of cases involving interstate businesses that arose elsewhere and might fit conveniently into their docket, well, that’s fair enough for government work. That led her to file a lone separate partial concurrence in BNSF, as against a majority opinion written by Justice Ruth Ginsburg (who has authored much of the Court’s modern jurisprudence in this area) and an outright dissent in today’s decision in Squibb, authored by Justice Samuel Alito. To no one’s surprise, new Justice Neil Gorsuch joined the majority in both cases.

Many commenters will inevitably group these cases with last month’s 8-0 decision in the patent venue case of TC Heartland v. Kraft Foods, which I described as “a landmark win for defendants in patent litigation—and, on a practical level, for fairer ground rules in procedure.” To be sure, the underlying legal materials were completely different; TC Heartland involved the interpretation of wording in a federal statute. What united the three cases with Daimler is that the contemporary Court is keenly aware of the danger that the tactical use of forum-shopping will eclipse the merits in many categories of high-stakes litigation, turning potentially losing cases into winners through the chance to file them in a more friendly court.

That insight might prove significant at a time when forum-shopping has come to play a prominent role in high-profile ideological litigation—with conservatives running to file suit in the Fifth Circuit, liberals in the Ninth.