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CRS Annotated Constitution

Article III -- Table of ContentsPrev | Next

Power of Congress To Modify Maritime Law.—The Constitution does not identify the source of the substantive law to be applied in the federal courts in cases of admiralty and maritime jurisdiction. Nevertheless, the grant of power to the federal courts in Article III necessarily implies the existence of a substantive maritime law which, if they are required to do so, the federal courts can fashion for themselves.751 But what of the power of Congress in[p.730]this area? In The Lottawanna,752 Justice Bradley undertook a definitive exposition of the subject. No doubt, the opinion of the Court notes, there exists “a great mass of maritime law which is the same in all commercial countries,” still “the maritime law is only so far operative as law in any country as it is adopted by the laws and usages of that country.”753 “The general system of maritime law which was familiar to the lawyers and statesmen of the country when the Constitution was adopted, was most certainly intended and referred to when it was declared in that instrument that the judicial power of the United States shall extend ‘to all cases of admiralty and maritime jurisdiction.’ But by what criterion are we to ascertain the precise limits of the law thus adopted? The Constitution does not define it. . . .

“One thing, however, is unquestionable; the Constitution must have referred to a system of law coextensive with, and operating uniformly in, the whole country. It certainly could not have been the intention to place the rules and limits of maritime law under the disposal and regulation of the several States, as that would have defeated the uniformity and consistency at which the Constitution aimed on all subjects of a commercial character affecting the intercourse of the States with each other or with foreign states.”754

“It cannot be supposed that the framers of the Constitution contemplated that the law should forever remain unalterable. Congress undoubtedly has authority under the commercial power, if no other, to introduce such changes as are likely to be needed.”755 That Congress’ power to enact substantive maritime law was conferred by the commerce clause was assumed in numerous opinions,756 but later opinions by Justice Bradley firmly established that the source of power was the admiralty grant itself, as supplemented by the second prong of the necessary and proper clause.757 Thus, “[a]s the Constitution extends the judicial power of the United States to ‘all cases of admiralty and maritime jurisdiction,’ and as this jurisdiction is held to be exclusive, the power of legislation[p.731]on the same subject must necessarily be in the national legislature and not in the state legislatures.”758 Rejecting an attack on a maritime statute as an infringment of intrastate commerce, Justice Bradley wrote: “It is unnecessary to invoke the power given the Congress to regulate commerce in order to find authority to pass the law in question. The act was passed in amendment of the maritime law of the country, and the power to make such amendments is coextensive with that law. It is not confined to the boundaries or class of subjects which limit and characterize the power to regulate commerce; but, in maritime matters, it extends to all matters and places to which the maritime law extends.”759

The law administered by federal courts in admiralty is therefore an amalgam of the general maritime law insofar as it is acceptable to the courts, modifications of that law by congressional amendment, the common law of torts and contracts as modified to the extent constitutionally possible by state legislation, and international prize law. This body of law is at all times subject to modification by the paramount authority of Congress acting in pursuance of its powers under the admiralty and maritime clause and the necessary and proper clause and, no doubt, the commerce clause, now that the Court’s interpretation of that clause has become so expansive. Of this power there has been uniform agreement among the Justices of the Court.760


Footnotes

751 Swift & Co. Packers v. Compania Columbiana Del Caribe, 339 U.S. 684, 690, 691 (1950); Halcyon Lines v. Haenn Ship Ceiling & Refitting Corp., 342 U.S. 282, 285 (1952); Romero v. International Terminal Operating Co., 358 U.S. 354, 360–361 (1959). For a recent example, see Moragne v. States Marine Lines, 398 U.S. 375 (1970); United States v. Reliable Transfer Co., 421 U.S. 397 (1975). Compare The Lottawanna, 21 Wall. (88 U.S.) 558, 576–577 (1875) (“But we must always remember that the court cannot make the law, it can only declare it. If, within its proper scope, any change is desired in its rules, other than those of procedure, it must be made by the legislative department”). States can no more override rules of judicial origin than they can override acts of Congress. Wilburn Boat Co. v. Firemen’s Fund Ins. Co., 348 U.S. 310, 314 (1955).
752 21 Wall. (88 U.S.) 558 (1875).
753 Id., 572.
754 Id., 574–575.
755 Id., 577.
756 E.g., The Daniel Ball, 10 Wall, (77 U.S.) 557, 564 (1871); Moore v. American Transp. Co., 24 How. (65 U.S.) 1, 39 (1861); Providence & N.Y. S.S. Co. v. Hill Mfg. Co., 109 U.S. 578 (1883); The Robert W. Parsons, 191 U.S. 17 (1903).
757 Butler v. Boston & S. S.S. Co., 130 U.S. 527 (1889); In re Garnett, 141 U.S. 1 (1891). The second prong of the necessary and proper clause is the authorization to Congress to enact laws to carry into execution the powers vested in other departments of the Federal Government. See Detroit Trust Co. v. The Thomas Barlum, 293 U.S. 21, 42 (1934).
758 Butler v. Boston & S. S.S. Co., 130 U.S. 527, 557 (1889).
759 In re Garnett, 141 U.S. 1, 12 (1891). See also Southern Pacific Co. v. Jensen, 244 U.S. 205, 215 (1917); Knickerbocker Ice Co. v. Stewart, 253 U.S. 149, 160 (1920); Crowell v. Benson, 285 U.S. 22, 55 (1932). The Jones Act, under which injured seamen may maintain an action at law for damages, has been reviewed as an exercise of legislative power deducible from the admiralty clause. Panama R.R. Co. v. Johnson, 264 U.S. 375, 386, 388, 391 (1924); Romero v. International Terminal Operating Co., 358 U.S. 354, 360–361 (1959). On the limits to the congressional power, see Panama R.R. Co. v. Johnson, supra, 386–387; Detroit Trust Co. v. The Thomas Barlum, 293 U.S. 21, 43–44 (1934).
760 Thus, Justice McReynolds’ assertion of the paramountcy of congressional power in Southern Pacific Co. v. Jensen, 244 U.S. 205, 215 (1917), was not disputed by the four dissenters in that case and is confirmed in subsequent cases critical of Jensen which in effect invite congressional modification of maritime law. E.g., Davis v. Dept. of Labor and Industries, 317 U.S. 249 (1942). The nature of maritime law has excited some relevant controversy. In American Ins. Co. v. Canter, 1 Pet. (26 U.S.) 516, 545 (1828), Chief Justice Marshall declared that admiralty cases do not “arise under the Constitution or laws of the United States” but “are as old as navigation itself; and the law, admiralty and maritime as it has existed for ages, is applied by our Courts to the cases as they arise.” In Romero v. International Terminal Operating Co., 358 U.S. 354 (1959), the plaintiff sought a jury trial in federal court on a seaman’s suit for personal injury on an admiralty claim, contending that cases arising under the general maritime law are “civil actions” that arise “under the Constitution, laws, or treaties of the United States,” 28 U.S.C. Sec. 1331 . Five Justices in an opinion by Justice Frankfurter disagreed. Maritime cases do not arise under the Constitution or laws of the United States for federal question purposes and must, absent diversity, be instituted in admiralty where there is no jury trial. The dissenting four, Justice Brennan for himself and Chief Justice Warren and Justices Black and Douglas, contended that maritime law, although originally derived from international sources, is operative within the United States only by virtue of having been accepted and adopted pursuant to Article III, and accordingly judicially originated rules formulated under authority derived from that Article are “laws” of the United States to the same extent as those enacted by Congress.
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