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The U.S. Supreme Court on March 5 ruled unanimously that a federal district court is not required to determine whether it has subject-matter or personal jurisdiction in a case before dismissing it under the doctrine of forum non conveniens. Sinochem International Co. Ltd. v. Malaysia International Shipping Corp., No. 06-102. Sinochem International Co. Ltd., a Chinese state-owned importer, entered into a contract with Triorient, an American corporation, according to which Sinochem would purchase steel coils and Triorient would be paid under a letter of credit by producing a valid bill of lading certifying that the coils had been loaded for shipment to China on or before April 30, 2003. Triorient chartered a vessel owned by Malaysia International to transport the coils, and hired a stevedoring company to load the coils in Philadelphia. A bill of lading, dated April 30, 2003, triggered payment under the letter of credit. Sinochem petitioned a Chinese admiralty court for preservation of a maritime claim against Malaysia International and an order to arrest the vessel, alleging that the Malaysian company had falsely backdated the bill of lading. The Chinese court ordered arrest of the ship, and Sinochem filed a complaint in that tribunal. The Chinese court rejected Malaysia International’s jurisdictional objections-a ruling affirmed on appeal. Subsequently, Malaysia International filed an action in a Pennsylvania federal court, asserting that Sinochem’s petition to the Chinese court contained misrepresentations, and seeking compensation for losses sustained as a result of the ship’s arrest. Sinochem moved to dismiss, asserting lack of subject-matter and personal jurisdiction and the doctrine of forum non conveniens, under which a federal district court may dismiss an action if a court abroad is a more appropriate and convenient forum for adjudication. The court said it had subject-matter jurisdiction, but lacked personal jurisdiction over Sinochem under Pennsylvania law. Speculating that limited discovery might reveal personal jurisdiction under Fed. R. Civ. P. 4(k)(2), the court nonetheless dismissed the case on ground of forum non conveniens, holding that the case could be adjudicated adequately and more conveniently in the Chinese courts. The 3d U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed, holding that there was subject-matter jurisdiction, and that the district court could not dismiss the case under the forum non conveniens doctrine unless it had determined that it had both subject-matter and personal jurisdiction. The justices reversed. Writing on behalf of the court, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said that this was a textbook case for immediate forum non conveniens dismissal. Although a federal court generally may not rule on the merits of a case without first determining that it has subject-matter and personal jurisdiction, a court has leeway “to choose among threshold grounds for denying audience to a case on the merits.” A district court may dispose of an action by a forum non conveniens dismissal, bypassing questions of jurisdiction, when considerations of convenience, fairness and judicial economy so warrant. “Resolving a forum non conveniens motion does not entail any assumption by the court of substantive law-declaring power,” Ginsburg wrote. “Discovery concerning personal jurisdiction would have burdened Sinochem with expense and delay to scant purpose: The district court inevitably would dismiss the case without reaching the merits, given its well-considered forum non conveniens appraisal.” Malaysia International’s chief complaint-misrepresentations to the Chinese admiralty court to secure the vessel’s arrest-is an issue best left for determination by the Chinese courts.

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