Thursday, June 16, 2005

Snowney v. Harrah's Entertainment (Cal. Supreme Ct. - June 6, 2005)

The California Supreme Court held in this case that California has personal jurisdiction to adjudicate a class action against various Nevada hotels (including Harrah's) for allegedly illegally (and without notice) imposing various energy surcharges on their guests.

There's a reason the decision is unanimous. It is not only clearly right. It's also incredibly limited. Time and time again Justice Brown distinguishes this particular case from various other types of suits, and repeatedly refuses to write an opinion that sweeps more broadly than necessary to resolve the particular claim at issue. Several commentators have opined that the decision opens up Nevada casinos to suits in California. But the opinion is much, much more narrow than this, and is expressly limited to the particular types of allegations that are raised in this suit -- which are, as the Court notes, heavily related to the defendant's contacts with the forum state. And the opinion seems to go out of its way to not decide -- or even express an implicit opinion on -- various broader jurisprudential issues. (For a perfect example, compare footnotes 10 and 11 of the opinion, which concerns the related but unpresented issue regarding whether a hotel could similarly be subjected to jurisdiction in California based upon injuries occuring in the hotel, which cites 9 noncontrolling cases on one side of this issue and 8 directly contrary noncontrolling cases on the other side).

The unanimous opinion is a perfect example of case-specific reasoning employed by an appellate court with broad precedential authority. For those who believe in case-by-case adjudication as the proper means of articulating appellate principles, it is exactly the type of opinion that one should prefer. For those who prefer that appellate courts (and particularly supreme courts) establish broad principles of law, by contrast, this is the type of opinion that should be avoided as inefficient and unhelpful to lower courts. So it's a good example upon which to assess this debate.

Regardless of the competing merits of these positions, however, Justice Brown clearly gets it right in this particular case. There's undoubtedly personal jurisdiction over these claims. Sure, the California Supreme Court could -- and perhaps should -- have done more. But at least what they did do was right. Which ain't always the case.