ArtIII.S2.C1.12 Overview of 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 federal courts’ jurisdiction over admiralty and maritime cases derives from the Constitution and federal statutes. Article III of the Constitution extends the federal judicial power to “all Cases of admiralty and maritime Jurisdiction.” 1 By giving the federal judiciary jurisdiction over admiralty cases—and authorizing Congress to regulate that jurisdiction2 —the Framers sought to ensure that federal courts would resolve cases that might implicate the nation’s foreign policy.3 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.4

Beginning with the Judiciary Act of 1789, Congress established the federal district courts and granted them “exclusive” and “original” 5 subject matter jurisdiction over any “civil case of admiralty or maritime jurisdiction.” 6 Congress also allowed state courts to exercise concurrent jurisdiction over admiralty cases in which plaintiffs seek traditional common law remedies.7 Under the “saving to suitors clause” in Section 9 of the Judiciary Act, courts retain concurrent jurisdiction over most contract and tort claims that fall within federal admiralty jurisdiction because a plaintiff may bring a personal action against an individual defendant seeking common law remedies (e.g., payment of money damages).8 However, in general, plaintiffs must pursue actions in federal court when they seek remedies that lie against property in rem, such as the seizure of a vessel to enforce a maritime lien.9

Much of the Supreme Court’s jurisprudence on admiralty jurisdiction has examined the territorial extent of such jurisdiction and which types of cases fall within this limited grant of jurisdiction. Generally, courts consider the location in which a tort or crime occurs to be a major factor when determining whether the tort or crime falls within admiralty jurisdiction.10 The Court has held that, under the Constitution, admiralty jurisdiction extends to all navigable public waters, regardless of whether they are saltwater or freshwater, or subject to the ebb and flow of the tide.11 Admiralty jurisdiction also extends to contracts, regardless of where they are entered into or to be performed, provided that their subject matter is “essentially maritime.” 12

When a federal court exercises admiralty jurisdiction over a case,13 it follows a special set of procedural rules. Notably, jury trials are unavailable in civil admiralty proceedings14 unless Congress provides otherwise.15 Thus, in federal admiralty proceedings, the judge typically decides issues of both law and fact. When a federal or state court exercises admiralty jurisdiction over a case, the judge must apply the substantive rules of federal maritime law,16 which is a type of federal common law17 that Congress may revise.18 In the absence of controlling federal maritime law, federal courts have sometimes applied substantive state law in admiralty cases when it would not interfere with the uniformity of federal maritime law.19 In some cases, such as those involving maritime torts in a state’s territorial waters, the Court has held that state law may supplement federal maritime law with additional remedies.20

This group of essays examine the Constitution’s grant of federal judicial power over cases of admiralty and maritime jurisdiction. The first essay provides an overview of the historical development of admiralty and maritime jurisdiction in the United States. Subsequent essays examine Supreme Court decisions that interpret the territorial and conceptual scope of this jursidiction. The essays conclude by discussing when concurrent federal and state jurisdiction exists over maritime claims and, alternatively, when such claims fall within the exclusive admiralty jurisdiction of the federal courts.

U.S. Const. art. III, § 2, cl. 1. Federal courts have treated the “admiralty” and “maritime” aspects of such jurisdiction as functionally synonymous. This Essay sometimes refers to “admiralty and maritime jurisdiction” as “admiralty jurisdiction.” Jurisdiction generally refers to a court’s power to decide a case. Jurisdiction, Black’s Law Dictionary 980 (10th ed. 2014). 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
3 Joseph Story, Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States, § 1666 (1833). back
Id.; Waring v. Clarke, 46 U.S. (5 How.) 441, 456-57 (1847). back
If a court has “original jurisdiction” over a particular subject matter, then it may hear and decide a case concerning that matter before any other tribunal does. Original Jurisdiction, Black’s Law Dictionary 982 (10th ed. 2014). back
The current version of this statutory grant of admiralty jurisdiction is located at 28 U.S.C. § 1333(1). Congress also granted the federal district courts exclusive jurisdiction over prize cases, which have historically involved property (e.g., a ship) used by an enemy, captured during wartime, and brought into the United States. Id. § 1333(2). Under federal law, the district courts have jurisdiction over cases involving the seizure and forfeiture of a vessel for violating federal law. Id. §§ 1333(1), 1356. Congress also granted district courts in U.S. territories jurisdiction over admiralty and maritime cases. See The City of Panama, 101 U.S. 453, 458 (1880).

In general, district courts have discretion as to whether to retain admiralty jurisdiction over suits between foreign parties. Charter Shipping Co. v. Bowring, Jones & Tidy, Ltd., 281 U.S. 515, 517 (1930); The Maggie Hammond, 76 U.S. (9 Wall.) 435, 450, 457 (1869).

28 U.S.C. § 1333(1) ( “The district courts shall have original jurisdiction, exclusive of the courts of the States, of . . . [a]ny civil case of admiralty or maritime jurisdiction, saving to suitors in all cases all other remedies to which they are otherwise entitled.” ) (emphasis added). See also, e.g., Lewis v. Lewis & Clark Marine, Inc., 531 U.S. 438, 454 (2001); Schoonmaker v. Gilmore, 102 U.S. 118, 119 (1880); Martin v. Hunter’s Lessee, 14 U.S. (1 Wheat.) 304, 337 (1816). Lawsuits brought under the savings clause in state court may not be removed to federal court unless independent grounds exist, other than admiralty, for the federal court’s exercise of jurisdiction. Romero v. Int’l Terminal Operating Co., 358 U.S. 354, 371-72 (1959). back
For more on the relationship between federal and state court jurisdiction in admiralty cases, see ArtIII.S2.C1.14.6 Exclusivity of Federal Admiralty and Maritime Jurisdiction back
See id. In in rem admiralty proceedings, the court takes custody of the res or property. The property itself is made the defendant in the case, and parties who have an interest in it “may appear” and each “propound independently his interest.” Taylor v. Carryl, 61 U.S. (20 How.) 583, 599 (1858). back
Exec. Jet Aviation, Inc. v. City of Cleveland, 409 U.S. 249, 268 (1972). back
See, e.g., Southern S.S. Co. v. NLRB, 316 U.S. 31, 41 (1942); The Montello, 87 U.S. (20 Wall.) 430, 441-45 (1874); The Daniel Ball, 77 U.S. (10 Wall.) 557, 563-64 (1870). Congress has some power to extend the territorial scope of admiralty jurisdiction. For example, in the Extension of Admiralty Jurisdiction Act, 46 U.S.C. § 30101, Congress augmented admiralty jurisdiction so that it encompasses claims that involve injury or damage to persons or property “caused by a vessel on navigable waters,” even if such injury or damage is “done or consummated on land” (e.g., collision of a ship with a bridge). back
Ex parte Easton, 95 U.S. 68, 72 (1877). back
A federal court exercising admiralty jurisdiction is sometimes said to be “sitting in admiralty.” back
E.g., The Whelan, 11 U.S. (7 Cr.) 112, 112 (1812); The Schooner Betsey, 8 U.S. (4 Cr.) 443, 452 (1807); The Schooner Sally, 6 U.S. (2 Cr.) 406, 406 (1805); La Vengeance, 3 U.S. (3 Dall.) 297, 301 (1796). back
Congress may, consistent with the Constitution, provide for jury trials in admiralty cases. See Fitzgerald v. United States Lines Co., 374 U.S. 16, 20 (1963) (noting that the Seventh Amendment does not require jury trials in admiralty cases but “neither that Amendment nor any other provision of the Constitution forbids them” ); The Propeller Genesee Chief v. Fitzhugh, 53 U.S. (12 How.) 443, 460 (1852). The Great Lakes Statute, 28 U.S.C. § 1873, provides that parties to a lawsuit involving maritime contracts or torts may demand a jury trial in admiralty cases that arise upon the Great Lakes, provided that the vessels involved meet certain conditions. back
Federal maritime law incorporates common principles that commercial nations have recognized. The United States has adopted this maritime law through its “laws and usages” with some modifications to account for local conditions. See The Lottawanna, 88 U.S. (21 Wall.) 558, 572-73 (1875) ( “In this respect it is like international law or the laws of war, which have the effect of law in no country any further than they are accepted and received as such.” ). back
Federal courts have explained the content of the general maritime law. See generally Kermarec v. Compagnie Generale Transatlantique, 358 U.S. 625, 628 (1959); Carlisle Packing Co. v. Sandanger, 259 U.S. 255, 259 (1922); Chelentis v. Luckenbach S.S. Co., 247 U.S. 372, 381-82 (1918); United States v. Ames, 99 U.S. 35, 35-36 (1879). back
Congress may, consistent with the Constitution, revise federal maritime law. See Crowell v. Benson, 285 U.S. 22, 55 (1932); In re Garnett, 141 U.S. 1, 14 (1891). Congress might also rely, to an extent, on its power to regulate maritime commerce when revising general maritime law. The Lottawanna, 88 U.S. (21 Wall.) at 577. See also, e.g., U.S. Const. art. I, § 8, cl. 10 (granting Congress power to “define and punish Piracies and Felonies committed on the high Seas, and Offences against the Law of Nations” ); id. § 8, cl. 11 (giving Congress power to “declare War, grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal, and make Rules concerning Captures on Land and Water” ). back
Knickerbocker Ice Co. v. Stewart, 253 U.S. 149, 158-59 (1920). See also Goett v. Union Carbide Corp., 361 U.S. 340, 342 (1960) (holding that, in a wrongful death case, a state law may supply the standard for liability in a maritime tort that arises within the state’s territorial jurisdiction); Wilburn Boat Co. v. Fireman’s Fund Ins. Co., 348 U.S. 310, 320-21 (1955) (holding that state law governed the effect of marine insurance warranties when Congress had left regulation of marine insurance to the states). back
E.g., Yamaha Motor Corp. v. Calhoun, 516 U.S. 199, 202, 215 (1996) (holding that state remedies for the wrongful death of a nonseafarer in state territorial waters were not preempted by federal law, where federal law provided no other remedy). back