CRS Annotated Constitution
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Admiralty Proceedings.—Procedure in admiralty jurisdiction differs in few respects from procedure in actions at law, but the differences that do exist are significant.787 Suits in admiralty traditionally took the form of a proceeding in rem against the vessel, and, with exceptions to be noted, such proceedings in rem are confined exclusively to federal admiralty courts, because the grant of exclusive jurisdiction to the federal courts by the Judiciary Act of 1789 has been interpreted as referring to the traditional admiralty action, the in rem action, which was unknown to the common law.788 The savings clause in that Act under which a state court may entertain actions by suitors seeking a common–law remedy preserves to the state tribunals the right to hear actions at law where a common–law remedy or a new remedy analogous to a common–law remedy exists.789 Concurrent jurisdiction thus exists for the adjudication of in personam maritime causes of action against the owner of the vessel, and a plaintiff may ordinarily choose whether to bring his action in a state court or a federal court.
Forfeiture to the crown for violation of the laws of the sovereign was in English law an exception to the rule that admiralty has exclusive jurisdiction over in rem maritime actions and was[p.736]thus considered a common–law remedy. Although the Supreme Court sometimes has used language that would confine all proceedings in rem to admiralty courts,790 such actions in state courts have been sustained in cases of forfeiture arising out of violations of state law.791
Perhaps the most significant admiralty court difference in procedure from civil courts is the absence of a jury trial in admiralty actions, with the admiralty judge trying issues of fact as well as of law.792 Indeed, the absence of a jury in admiralty proceedings appears to have been one of the principal reasons why the English government vested a broad admiralty jurisdiction in the colonial vice–admiralty courts, since they provided a forum where the English authorities could enforce the Navigation Laws without “the obstinate resistance of American juries.”793
Territorial Extent of Admiralty and Maritime Jurisdiction.— Although he was a vigorous exponent of the expansion of admiralty jurisdiction, Justice Story for the Court in The Steamboat Thomas Jefferson794 adopted a restrictive English rule confining admiralty jurisdiction to the high seas and upon rivers as far as the ebb and flow of the tide extended.795 The demands of commerce on western waters led Congress to enact a statute extending admiralty jurisdiction over the Great Lakes and connecting waters,796 and in The Genessee Chief v. Fitzhugh797 Chief Justice Taney overruled The Thomas Jefferson and dropped the tidal ebb and flow requirement. This ruling laid the basis for subsequent judicial extension of jurisdiction over all waters, salt or fresh, tidal[p.737]or not, which are navigable in fact.798 Some of the older cases contain language limiting jurisdiction to navigable waters which form some link in an interstate or international waterway or some link in commerce,799 but these date from the time when it was thought the commerce power furnished the support for congressional legislation in this field.
Admiralty and Federalism.—Extension of admiralty and maritime jurisdiction to navigable waters within a State does not, however, of its own force include general or political powers of government. Thus, in the absence of legislation by Congress, the States through their courts may punish offenses upon their navigable waters and upon the sea within one marine league of the shore.800
Determination of the boundaries of admiralty jurisdiction is a judicial function, and “no State law can enlarge it, nor can an act of Congress or a rule of court make it broader than the judicial power may determine to be its true limits.”801 But, as with other jurisdictions of the federal courts, admiralty jurisdiction can only be exercised under acts of Congress vesting it in federal courts.802
The boundaries of federal and state competence, both legislative and judicial, in this area remain imprecise, and federal judicial determinations have notably failed to supply definiteness. During the last century, the Supreme Court generally permitted two overlapping systems of law to coexist in an uneasy relationship. The federal courts in admiralty applied the general maritime law,803 supplemented in some instances by state law which created and defined certain causes of action.804 Because the Judiciary Act of 1789[p.738]saved to suitors common–law remedies, persons suing in state courts or in federal courts in diversity of citizenship actions could look to common–law and statutory doctrines for relief in maritime–related cases in which the actions were noticeable.805 In Southern Pacific Co. v. Jensen,806 a sharply divided Court held that New York could not constitutionally apply its workmen’s compensation system to employees injured or killed on navigable waters. For the Court, Justice McReynolds reasoned “that the general maritime law, as accepted by the federal courts, constituted part of our national law, applicable to matters within the admiralty and maritime jurisdiction.”807 Recognizing that “it would be difficult, if not impossible, to define with exactness just how far the general maritime law may be changed, modified or affected by state legislation,” still it was certain that “no such legislation is valid if it works material prejudice to the characteristic features of the general maritime law, or interferes with the proper harmony or uniformity of that law in its international and interstate relations.”808 The “savings to suitors” clause was unavailing because the workmen’s compensation statute created a remedy “of a character wholly unknown to the common law, incapable of enforcement by the ordinary process of any court, and is not saved to suitors from the grant of exclusive jurisdiction.”809
Congress required three opportunities to legislate to meet the problem created by the decision, the lack of remedy for maritime workers to recover for injuries resulting from the negligence of their employers. First, Congress enacted a statute saving to claim[p.739]ants their rights and remedies under state workmen’s compensation laws.810 The Court invalidated it as an unconstitutional delegation of legislative power to the States. “The Constitution itself adopted and established, as part of the laws of the United States, approved rules of the general maritime law and empowered Congress to legislate in respect of them and other matters within the admiralty and maritime jurisdiction. Moreover, it took from the States all power, by legislation or judicial decision, to contravene the essential purposes of, or to work material injury to, characteristic features of such law or to interfere with its proper harmony and uniformity in its international and interstate relations.”811 Second, Congress reenacted the law but excluded masters and crew members of vessels from those who might claim compensation for maritime injuries.812
The Court found this effort unconstitutional as well, since “the manifest purpose [of the statute] was to permit any state to alter the maritime law, and thereby introduce conflicting requirements.”813 Finally, Congress passed the Longshoremen’s and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act, which provided accident compensation for injuries, including those resulting in death, sustained on navigable waters by employees, other than members of the crew, whenever “recovery . . . may not validly be provided by State law.”814
With certain exceptions,815 the federal–state conflict since Jensen has taken place with regard to three areas: (1) the interpretation of federal and state bases of relief for injuries and death as affected by the Longshoremen’s and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act; (2) the interpretation of federal and state bases of relief for personal injuries by maritime workers as affected by the Jones Act; and (3) the application of state law to permit recovery in mari[p.740]time wrongful death cases in which until recently there was no federal maritime right to recover.816
(1) The principal difficulty here was that after Jensen the Supreme Court did not maintain the line between permissible and impermissible state–authorized recovery at the water’s edge but created a “maritime but local” exception, by which some injuries incurred in or on navigable waters could be compensated under state workmen’s compensation laws or state negligence laws.817 “The application of the State Workmen’s Compensation Acts has been sustained where the work of the employee has been deemed to have no direct relation to navigation or commerce and the operation of the local law ‘would work no material prejudice to the essential features of the general maritime law.”’818 Because Congress provided in the Longshoremen’s and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act for recovery under the Act “if recovery . . . may not validly be provided by State law,”819 it was held that the “maritime but local” exception had been statutorily perpetuated,820 thus creating the danger for injured workers or their survivors that they might choose to seek relief by the wrong avenue to their prejudice. This danger was susequently removed by the Court when it recognized that there was a “twilight zone,” a “shadowy area,” in which recovery under either the federal law or a state law could be justified and forthwith held that in such a “twilight zone” the injured party should be enabled to recover under either.821 Then, in Calbeck v. Travel[p.741]ers Ins. Co.,822 the Court virtually read out of the Act its inapplicability when compensation would be afforded by state law and held that Congress’ intent in enacting the statute was to extend coverage to all workers who sustain injuries while on navigable waters of the United States whether or not a particular injury was also within the constitutional reach of a state workmen’s compensation law or other law. By the 1972 amendments to the LHWCA, Congress extended the law shoreward by refining the tests of “employee” and “navigable waters,” so as to reach piers, wharfs, and the like in certain circumstances.823
(2) The passage of the Jones Act824 gave seamen a statutory right of recovery for negligently inflicted injuries on which they could sue in state or federal courts. Because injured parties could obtain a jury trial in Jones Act suits, there was little attempted recourse under the savings clause825 to state law claims and thus no need to explore the line between applicable and inapplicable state law. But in the 1940s personal injury actions based on unseaworthiness826 were given new life by Court decisions for seamen,827 and the right was soon extended to longshoremen who were injured while on board ship or while working on the dock if the injury could be attributed either to the ship’s gear or its cargo.828 While these actions could have been brought in state court, federal law supplanted state law even with regard to injuries[p.742]sustained in state territorial waters.829 The 1972 LHWCA amendments, however, eliminated unseaworthiness recoveries by persons covered by the Act and substituted a recovery for injuries caused by negligence under the LHWCA itself.830
(3) In The Harrisburg,831 the Court held that maritime law did not afford an action for wrongful death, a position to which the Court adhered until quite recently.832 The Jones Act,833 the Death on the High Seas Act,834 and the Longshoremen’s and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act835 created causes of action for wrongful death, but for cases not falling within one of these laws the federal courts looked to state wrongful death and survival statutes.836 Thus, in The Tungus v. Skovgaard,837 the Court held that a state wrongful death statute encompassed claims both for negligence and unseaworthiness in the instance of a land–based worker killed when on board ship in navigable water; the Court divided five–to–four, however, in holding that the standards of the duties to furnish a seaworthy vessel and to use due care were created by the state law as well and not furnished by general maritime con[p.743]cepts.838 And in Hess v. United States,839 embracing a suit under the Federal Tort Claims Act for recovery for a death by drowning in a navigable Oregon river of an employee of a contractor engaged in repairing the federally–owned Bonneville Dam, a divided Court held that liability was to be measured by the standard of care expressed in state law, notwithstanding that the standard was higher than that required by maritime law. One area existed, however, in which beneficiaries of a deceased seaman were denied recovery.
The Jones Act provided a remedy for wrongful death resulting from negligence but not for one caused by unseaworthiness alone; in Gillespie v. United States Steel Corp.,840 the Court held that the survivors of a seaman drowned while working on a ship docked in an Ohio port could not recover under the state wrongful death statute even though the act recognized unseaworthiness as a basis for recovery, the Jones Act having superseded state laws.
Thus did matters stand until 1970 when the Court, in a unanimous opinion in Moragne v. States Marine Lines841 overruled its earlier cases and held that a right of recovery for wrongful death is sanctioned by general maritime law and that no statute is needed to bring the right into being. The Court was careful to note that the cause of action created in Moragne would not, like the state wrongful death statutes in Gillespie, be held precluded by the Jones Act, so that the survivor of a seaman killed in navigable waters within a State would have a cause of action for negligence under the Jones Act or for unseaworthiness under the general maritime law.842
Cases to Which the United States Is a Party
Right of the United States to Sue.—In the first edition of his Treatise, Justice Story noted that while “an express power is no where given in the constitution,” the right of the United States to[p.744]sue in its own courts “is clearly implied in that part respecting the judicial power. . . . Indeed, all the usual incidents appertaining to a personal sovereign, in relation to contracts, and suing, and enforcing rights, so far as they are within the scope of the powers of the government, belong to the United States, as they do to other sovereigns.”843 As early as 1818, the Supreme Court ruled that the United States could sue in its own name in all cases of contract without congressional authorization of such suits.844 Later, this rule was extended to other types of actions. In the absence of statutory provisions to the contrary, such suits are initiated by the Attorney General in the name of the United States.845
By the Judiciary Act of 1789, and subsequent amendments thereof, Congress has vested in the federal district courts jurisdiction to hear all suits of a civil nature at law or in equity brought by the United States as party plaintiff.846 As in other judicial proceedings, the United States, like any party plaintiff, must have an interest in the subject matter and a legal right to the remedy sought.847 Under the long settled principle that the courts have the power to abate public nuisances at the suit of the Government, the provision in Sec. 208(2) of the Labor Management Relations Act of 1949, authorizing federal courts to enjoin strikes which imperil national health or safety was upheld for the reason that the statute entrusts the courts with the determination of a “case or controversy” on which the judicial power can operate and does not impose any legislative, executive, or non–judicial function. Moreover, the fact that the rights sought to be protected were those of the public in unimpeded production in industries vital to public health, as distinguished from the private rights of labor and management,[p.745]was held not to alter the adversary (“case or controversy”) nature of the litigation instituted by the United States as the guardian of the aforementioned rights.848 Also, by reason of the highest public interest in the fulfillment of all constitutional guarantees, “including those that bear . . . directly on private rights, . . . it [is] perfectly competent for Congress to authorize the United States to be the guardian of that public interest in a suit for injunctive relief.”849
Supplement: [P. 743, add to n.842:]
But, in Yamaha Motor Corp. v. Calhoun, 516 U.S. 199 (1996) , a case involving a death in territorial waters from a jet ski accident, the Court held that Moragne does not provide the exclusive remedy in cases involving the death in territorial waters of a “nonseafarer”—a person who is neither a seaman covered by the Jones Act nor a longshore worker covered by the LHWCA.
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