ArtIII.S2.C1.13 Historical Background on Admiralty and Maritime Jurisdiction

Article III, Section 2, Clause 1:

The judicial Power shall extend to all Cases, in Law and Equity, arising under this Constitution, the Laws of the United States, and Treaties made, or which shall be made, under their Authority;—to all Cases affecting Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls;—to all Cases of admiralty and maritime Jurisdiction;—to Controversies to which the United States shall be a Party;—to Controversies between two or more States;—between a State and Citizens of another State,—between Citizens of different States,—between Citizens of the same State claiming Lands under Grants of different States, and between a State, or the Citizens thereof, and foreign States, Citizens or Subjects.

The Constitution’s Framers were familiar with the concept of a separate and specialized admiralty jurisdiction. Prior to the Founding, the British Crown commissioned vice-admiralty courts in the American colonies.1 These courts, which were subordinate to the English admiralty courts, exercised jurisdiction over maritime cases that arose in the colonies independently of the colonial courts of common law and equity.2

In the years leading up to the American Revolution, the jurisdiction of the independent vice-admiralty courts led to disputes between the colonists and the British Crown. For example, the colonists objected to the Crown’s prosecution of colonists in the vice-admiralty courts, without trial by jury, for allegedly violating a British tax law, the 1765 Stamp Act.3 In 1774, the First Continental Congress’s delegates cited this extension of British admiralty courts’ jurisdiction “beyond their ancient limits” as one of the major grievances against Great Britain.4 Denial to the colonists of trial by jury in the vice-admiralty courts helped to motivate the colonists’ 1776 Declaration of Independence, which cited the British King depriving the colonists “in many cases, of the benefits of Trial by Jury” as a justification for separating from Great Britain.5

After declaring independence, each state established its own admiralty courts.6 State admiralty courts adopted a wide variety of procedural practices, particularly with respect to the availability of jury trials.7 Although the Articles of Confederation authorized Congress to establish a tribunal to hear appeals from state admiralty courts in prize cases, this appeal mechanism failed to resolve many conflicts among state admiralty court decisions.8

Records of the Federal Convention of 1787 do not provide much insight into the Framers’ reasons for conferring admiralty jurisdiction on the federal judiciary.9 Delegate Charles Pinckney’s plan for the federal government, which he had submitted to the Convention, would have authorized Congress to establish separate admiralty courts in each of the states.10 In addition, the issue of admiralty jurisdiction received a brief mention in a Convention debate over whether the Constitution should specifically create lower federal courts.11 Delegate James Wilson argued that the “national Government” should have jurisdiction over admiralty cases because they would often implicate controversies with foreign parties that should remain outside of state court jurisdiction.12

Toward the end of the Convention, the Committee of Detail, which was responsible for drafting the Constitution, included the clause granting the federal judiciary admiralty and maritime jurisdiction in one of its drafts.13 This clause would establish uniform federal jurisdiction to resolve conflicts among the states with respect to prize cases, and the Convention delegates appear to have accepted it without controversy.14

Writing in the Federalist Papers in support of the Constitution’s ratification, Alexander Hamilton maintained that even the most adamant opponents of a strong central government had acknowledged that the federal judiciary should take cognizance of admiralty cases.15 Such cases, he wrote, “depend on the laws of nations, and so commonly affect the rights of foreigners, that they fall within the considerations which are relative to the public peace.” 16 The Founders believed that admiralty jurisdiction should extend to the adjudication of prize cases involving the capture of foreign ships17 and torts involving foreign ships,18 both of which could implicate foreign affairs.19 Hamilton also argued that federal courts should have exclusive jurisdiction in admiralty cases in order to provide uniform practices with respect to jury trials, which varied widely in state courts.20

By giving the federal judiciary jurisdiction over admiralty cases—and authorizing Congress to regulate that jurisdiction21 —the Framers sought to ensure that federal courts would resolve cases that might implicate the nation’s foreign policy.22 The Framers also recognized that uniform federal admiralty jurisdiction could protect maritime commerce from the diverse and unpredictable procedural rules that state admiralty courts had applied under the Articles of Confederation.23 After the Constitution’s ratification, commercial maritime activity continued to expand throughout the United States. The importance of uniform admiralty jurisdiction grew as the nation acquired new territories with inland waters and new inventions like the steamboat increased commerce on U.S. waterways.24

Waring, 46 U.S. at 454; 3 William Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England, 68-70 (Philadelphia 1893) (1768). See also Story, supra 3, at § 1659. back
See sources cited 1 back
The Avalon Project at Yale Law School, Declaration and Resolves of the First Continental Congress, > See also C.J. Hendry Co. v. Moore, 318 U.S. 133, 141 (1943) (noting that the “rise of the vice-admiralty courts” was “prompted in part by the [British] Crown’s desire to have access to a forum not controlled by the obstinate resistance of American juries” ). back
See sources cited 3. The colonial vice-admiralty courts had long exercised a more expansive jurisdiction than that of the English admiralty courts. See Atkins v. Disintegrating Co., 85 U.S. (18 Wall.) 272, 304 (1874); Waring, 46 U.S. (5 How.) at 454. back
Nat’l Archives, Declaration of Independence: A Transcription. back
Harrington Putnam, How the Federal Courts Were Given Admiralty Jurisdiction, 10 Cornell L.Q. 460, 461-63 (1925). For example, Virginia established a court to hear cases related to “vessels and their cargoes,” which had jurisdiction over prize cases. Id. back
The Federalist No. 83 (Alexander Hamilton). back
Putnam, supra 6, at 463-64. See also Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union of 1781, art. IX. back
Putnam, supra 6, at 460 (noting that the subject of admiralty courts “received but scant attention in the deliberations of the Federal Constitutional Convention” ). back
Id. at 460, 465-66. See also, e.g., 2 Records of the Federal Convention of 1787, at 159 (Max Farrand ed., 1911) (reproducing one version of the Pinckney Plan in a Committee of Detail draft). back
1 Records of the Federal Convention of 1787, at 124 (Max Farrand ed., 1911). back
Id. back
2 Records of the Federal Convention of 1787, supra 11, at 186-87. This draft granted the “Supreme Court” jurisdiction over admiralty cases but vested the federal “Judicial Power” in the Supreme Court and lower federal courts. See id. The Constitution’s final text specifically extended the federal “judicial Power” to admiralty cases. U.S. Const. art. III, § 2, cl. 1. back
Putnam, supra 6, at 469 ( “[T]he experience of prize appeals, and the conflicts in the separate State courts, had prepared the Convention to accept a uniform Federal system, as essential to maritime commerce.” ). See also 3 Joseph Story, Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States, § 1658 (1833) ( “The propriety of this delegation of power seems to have been little questioned at the time of adopting the constitution.” ). back
The Federalist No. 80 (Alexander Hamilton). back
Id. See also Story, supra 14, at §§ 1664-1667. back
Story, supra 14, at § 1662. back
Id. § 1664. back
See Chisholm v. Georgia, 2 U.S. (2 Dall.) 419, 475 (1793) (noting that “as the seas are the joint property of nations, whose right and privileges relative thereto, are regulated by the law of nations and treaties, [admiralty and maritime] cases necessarily belong to national jurisdiction.” ). back
The Federalist No. 83 (Alexander Hamilton). back
See U.S. Const. art. III, § 1; id. § 2, cl. 1; United States v. Hudson & Goodwin, 11 U.S. (7 Cr.) 32, 33 (1812). back
Waring v. Clarke, 46 U.S. (5 How.) 441, 456-57 (1847); Story, supra 14, at § 1666. back
Id.; Waring, 46 U.S. (5 How.) at 456-57. back
The Hine v. Trevor, 71 U.S. (4 Wall.) 555, 562 (1867) ( “[W]ith the vast increase of inland navigation consequent upon the use of steamboats, and the development of wealth on the borders of the rivers, which thus became the great water highways of an immense commerce, the necessity for an admiralty court, and the value of admiralty principles in settling controversies growing out of this system of transportation, began to be felt.” ). back