The act of presenting oneself in a court and thereby submitting to the court's jurisdiction, but only for a specific purpose and not for all the purposes for which a lawsuit is brought.
A party makes a special appearance before a state court for the sole purpose of objecting to the court's jurisdiction over that party. If the party makes a general appearance to respond to the lawsuit, instead of a special appearance, then common law dictates that the party thereby waives any objection to the court's jurisdiction over her. A party may object to the court's jurisdiction for a number of reasons, such as when service of process was insufficient or defective, there is a variance between the complaint and the summons, or the lawsuit was brought in the wrong court. When a party wants to make a jurisdictional objection, she has the right to appear for the special purpose of making that objection, but according to common law, the party must clearly and specifically state to the court that she is specially appearing.
Rule 12(b) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure has abolished the distinction between general and special appearances for federal courts. Therefore, parties can raise a jurisdictional objection along with other defenses in a responsive pleading in federal court. However, if a party wishes to make the jurisdictional objection initially without having to prepare a full responsive pleading, the federal courts will permit that party to do so if he specially appears.
Some states have followed the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure and have eliminated for state court matters the distinction between general and special appearances. Many states still acknowledge the distinction, however, and some specifically provide for the distinction by statute.