Pennoyer v. Neff has a bad rap. As an original matter, Pennoyer is legally correct. Compared to current doctrine, it offers a more coherent and attractive way to think about personal jurisdiction and interstate relations generally. To wit: The Constitution imposes no direct limits on personal jurisdiction. Jurisdiction isn’t a matter of federal law, but of general law—that unwritten law, including much of the English common law and the customary law of nations, that formed the basis of the American legal system. Founding-era states were free to override that law and to exercise more expansive jurisdiction. But if they did, their judgments wouldn’t be recognized elsewhere, in other states or in federal courts—any more than if they’d tried to redraw their borders. As Pennoyer saw, the Fourteenth Amendment changed things by enabling direct federal review of state judgments, rather than making parties wait to challenge them at the recognition stage. It created a federal question of what had been a general one: whether a judgment was issued with jurisdiction, full stop, such that the deprivation of property or liberty it ordered would be done with due process of law.
Reviving Pennoyer would make modern doctrine make more sense. As general-law principles, not constitutional decrees, jurisdictional doctrines could be adjusted by international treaty—or overridden through Congress’s enumerated powers. The Due Process Clause gives these rules teeth without determining their content, leaving space for federal rules to govern our federal system. In the meantime, courts facing jurisdictional questions should avoid pitched battles between “sovereignty” and “liberty,” looking instead to current conventions of general and international law. Pennoyer’s reasoning can be right without International Shoe’s outcome being wrong; international law and American practice might just be different now than they were in 1878 or 1945. But if not, at least we’ll be looking in the right place. General law may not be much, but it’s something: the conventional settlement of the problems of political authority at the root of any theory of personal jurisdiction. Recovering those conventions is not only useful for its own sake, but a step toward appreciating our deep dependence on shared traditions of general law.