Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Suing God: Jurisdictional Purgatory?

To make a point about frivolous lawsuits, Nebraska state senator Ernie Chambers is suing God.

Although such a case might have political or social merits, my first thought was that a cheeky court willing to hear Chambers would come to the same conclusion as the court in Gerald Mayo v. Satan and His Staff, where a Pennsylvania court found that it lacked jurisdiction over Satan (who was being sued), as the defendant was "a foreign prince" probably beyond that court's jurisdictional reach.

It occurs to me, however, that suing God might present a different set of jurisdictional issues than suing Satan. I'll merely get the conversation started and hope that you all can expand it via the comments:

  • Foreseeability: Here the omniknowledgeability (yes, I shall create that word) of The Almighty works against He/She/It if He/She/It wants to avoid lawsuit in Nebraska. Even if God is a non-resident of Nebraska (naturally, you'd need to test for domicile to determine its status), the ability of God to foresee that its actions would cause in-state injury could subject it to Nebraska's jurisdiction under Calder v. Jones, 465 U.S. 783 (1984). Of course, Chambers's complaint would still need to arise out of these Nebraska-directed-Almighty actions, as Calder concerns specific personal jurisdiction. To satisfy the broader general personal jurisdiction standard, God's actions would need to satisfy the continuous and systematic contacts that SCOTUS reiterated in Helicopteros Nacionales de Colombia v. Hall, 466 U.S. 408 (1984).

  • One Person, All Persons? If we're talking about a Triune God, it's unclear to me whether getting jurisdiction of One Person is sufficient, or whether jurisdiction of all Three Persons must be obtained. Since tag jurisdiction – transient jurisdiction where notice is served on a party while that party is physically in the jurisdiction (e.g. visiting friends) – does not apply to corporations, an analogous jurisdictional limit might apply to a deity with multiple instantiations. See Burnham v. Superior Court, 495 U.S. 604, 609 n.1 (1990).

  • Book of Mormon Connection? Although various Mormon scholars believe that the Book of Mormon describes God as physically present in the Great Lakes region several hundred years ago, it is unclear if God was physically present in Nebraska at this time, or whether these corporeal contacts should even factor in to determining jurisdiction several hundred years later.

  • Other jurisdictional possibilities are out there, – Agency Law, Foreign Relations, etc. – so please feel free to add them in the comments section. Also note that Australian cinema has already addressed this question.
Many thanks to Dan & Colin for many of the above points. Where the points sound inspired, that's them. Where they sound insipid, that's me.

Update (9/21/07): God has answered the complaint and is disputing jurisdiction.

2 comments:

Liberaltarian said...

If you're actually thinking of trying to get personal jurisdiction over God, you're going to have difficulty actually effecting service of process (unless you can count the Catholic Church as his authorized agent -- actually it would be pretty funny to see whether people clamor to be sued as God's agent, or if they try to pass the buck). In any event, if you do manage to effect service of process, you could probably get him under tag jurisdiction grounds.

If you get to a purposeful availment test, there's certainly an inherent flaw. Sure, God may have had activity (business or otherwise) in any district, there's no way he purposefully availed himself of those laws--His law is ostensibly higher than any man-made law, so he wouldn't have ever foreseen having to be "haled into court"...of course, the omniscience factor would suggest otherwise, but then again, he couldn't ever really be "haled into court" since he cannot be contained by a court room. Of course, arguing semantics that never envisioned the possibility of suing a non-corporeal being is a pretty worthless exercise, so I guess I'll stop now.

Colin said...

In Catholic thought, the Pope is the Vicar of Christ, or Jesus's substitute on Earth. Under the doctrine of agency, service on the Pope should give a court jurisdiction over Jesus. Of course, a plaintiff would have to wait until the Pope journeys to the United States. Also, I'm not sure whether the Pope is the representative of only one person of the trinity (the human incarnation of the Son) or whether the Pope is the agent of all.