Shaffer v. Heitner: A New Attitude Toward State Court Jurisdiction Academic Article uri icon


  • Mr. Justice Frankfurter's observation is equally suited to the overruling of the century-old case, Pennoyer v. Neff, by the recent decision in Shaffer v. Heitner Shaffer ended not only Pennoyer's reign, but also a jurisdictional perspective which rested on the distinction between in personam and in rem jurisdiction and the concept of a state's sovereignty over property within its borders. The basis of the Pennoyer doctrine was the concept that a state had authority over all persons and property within its territory, and no authority whatsoever outside its territorial limits. Modifying previous theory slightly, Pennoyer became the standard, prescribing all state jurisdictional procedures until, in 1945, International Shoe v. Washington delineated a new test for in personam actions. Since that time, Pennoyer has continued to serve as the paradigm for in rem proceedings. The variety of litigants and the diverse situations naturally found in a civil system created a complex framework around the basic doctrine. The most oblique of these developments was the evolution of quasi in rem theory, which allowed the seizure of a nonresident's property in order to satisfy a claim unrelated to that property. In certain applications, the theory is valid; for example, where a party goes into seclusion or moves out of state to avoid creditors and the jurisdiction of the courts, seizure of any property remaining in the state is a fair method of satisfying valid claims against him. A state has the right and duty to provide its residents with a remedy for debts where the debtor is conspicuously absent and refuses to submit himself to the forum for a court determination of his liability. Nevertheless, the commercial complexities of the twentieth century provided an opportunity for severe abuse of the procedure. Intangible obligations, contingent debts, even non-transferable interests became a valid basis for quasi in rem jurisdiction in cases where the defendant's relation to the forum state was nil. The abuse reached its critical point in the facts of Shaffer, and resulted in the abandonment of the Pennoyer theory for the more viable "minimum contacts" standard of International Shoe. As indicated in the opening quote, this change signifies more than the mere replacement of Pennoyer with a more modern standard, or a single enlargement of minimum contacts' application. It expresses the adoption of a new attitude toward state court jurisdiction; the Court has de-emphasized the importance of the res in the realization that no matter what the object of the litigation, the subject is always the determination of personal rights. After analyzing the Shaffer decision, this note will discuss its effect on in rem and quasi in rem actions, and the possible backlash by state courts reacting to a limitation on their jurisdiction. It will conclude with an examination of the minimum contacts test and the possibility of its modification in light of the recent decision.

published proceedings

  • Tulsa Law Review

author list (cited authors)

  • George, J.

complete list of authors

  • George, James

publication date

  • October 1977