Jurisdictional Problems, Comity Solutions
61 Pages Posted: 11 Oct 2021 Last revised: 2 May 2022
Date Written: September 26, 2021
American choice of law is today portrayed as a story of how a more modern and functionalist methodology came to overthrow the long dominant territorial system. Against this background, the situs rule—the territorial rule requiring that all property-related issues be governed by the law of the jurisdiction in which the property is located—is seen as an unusual straggler of a now-debunked theory. Central to this narrative is the idea that the vested rights theory, which was embraced by the Restatement (First) of Conflict of Laws and assumed away the possibility for overlapping jurisdictions, represented “traditional” choice of law, going back to Justice Joseph Story, the father of American conflicts law. This is the perspective adopted by the now-in-the-works Restatement (Third), which aims to usher in a new era for American conflict of laws by cutting out all vestiges of the “traditional” model—the situs rule included.
But this narrative, while broadly held, is wrong. It is a mistake to associate choice of law during the early Republic with an early twentieth-century model of territorialism. In this Essay, we explain that the early American choice-of-law model, as described by Justice Story, was not territorial, but rather intensely functional, with its prime focus being resolving the uncertainty created by the constitutional law governing the limits of personal jurisdiction and the recognition of sister-state judgments. In this context, the persistence of the situs rule appears to be not an anachronism but rather an indication that “modern” choice-of-law theories misunderstand the forces shaping conflict-of-laws doctrine today. Using the situs rule as a window into the foundations of choice of law, this Essay thus calls into question the standard narrative underlying contemporary choice-of-law literature and challenges the approach of the proposed Restatement (Third).
Keywords: choice of law, property, situs rule, legal history, conflict of laws
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