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 admiralty and maritime jurisdiction of the federal courts had its origins in the jurisdiction vested in the courts of the Admiral of the English Navy. Prior to independence, vice-admiralty courts were created in the Colonies by commissions from the English High Court of Admiralty. After independence, the states established admiralty courts, from which at a later date appeals could be taken to a court of appeals set up by Congress under the Articles of Confederation. 1 Since one of the objectives of the Philadelphia Convention was the promotion of commerce through removal of obstacles occasioned by the diverse local rules of the states, it was only logical that it should contribute to the development of a uniform body of maritime law by establishing a system of federal courts and granting to these tribunals jurisdiction over admiralty and maritime cases. 2
The Constitution uses the terms
admiralty and maritime jurisdiction without defining them. Though closely related, the words are not synonyms. In England the word
maritime referred to the cases arising upon the high seas, whereas
admiralty meant primarily cases of a local nature involving police regulations of shipping, harbors, fishing, and the like. A long struggle between the admiralty and common law courts had, however, in the course of time resulted in a considerable curtailment of English admiralty jurisdiction. A much broader conception of admiralty and maritime jurisdiction existed in the United States at the time of the framing of the Constitution than in the Mother Country. 3 At the very beginning of government under the Constitution, Congress conferred on the federal district courts exclusive original cognizance
of all civil causes of admiralty and maritime jurisdiction, including all seizures under laws of impost, navigation or trade of the United States, where the seizures are made, on waters which are navigable from the sea by vessels of ten or more tons burthen, within their respective districts as well as upon the high seas; saving to suitors, in all cases, the right of a common law remedy, where the common law is competent to give it . . . . 4 This broad legislative interpretation of admiralty and maritime jurisdiction soon won the approval of the federal circuit courts, which ruled that the extent of admiralty and maritime jurisdiction was not to be determined by English law but by the principles of maritime law as respected by maritime courts of all nations and adopted by most, if not by all, of them on the continent of Europe. 5
Although a number of Supreme Court decisions had earlier sustained the broader admiralty jurisdiction on specific issues, 6 it was not until 1848 that the Court ruled squarely in its favor, which it did by declaring that
whatever may have been the doubt, originally, as to the true construction of the grant, whether it had reference to the jurisdiction in England, or to the more enlarged one that existed in other maritime countries, the question has become settled by legislative and judicial interpretation, which ought not now to be disturbed. 7 The Court thereupon proceeded to hold that admiralty had jurisdiction in personam as well as in rem over controversies arising out of contracts of affreightment between New York and Providence.
Admiralty and Maritime Cases
Admiralty and maritime jurisdiction comprises two types of cases: (1) those involving acts committed on the high seas or other navigable waters, and (2) those involving contracts and transactions connected with shipping employed on the seas or navigable waters. In the first category, which includes prize cases and torts, injuries, and crimes committed on the high seas, jurisdiction is determined by the locality of the act, while in the second category subject matter is the primary determinative factor. 8 Specifically, contract cases include suits by seamen for wages, 9 cases arising out of marine insurance policies, 10 actions for towage 11 or pilotage 12 charges, actions on bottomry or respondentia bonds, 13 actions for repairs on a vessel already used in navigation, 14 contracts of affreightment, 15 compensation for temporary wharfage, 16 agreements of consortship between the masters of two vessels engaged in wrecking, 17 and surveys of damaged vessels. 18 That is, admiralty jurisdiction
extends to all contracts, claims and services essentially maritime. 19 But the courts have never enunciated an unambiguous test which would enable one to determine in advance whether or not a given case is maritime. 20
The boundaries of admiralty jurisdiction over contracts – as opposed to torts or crimes – being conceptual rather than spatial, have always been difficult to draw. Precedent and usage are helpful insofar as they exclude or include certain common types of contract. . . . 21
Maritime torts include injuries to persons, 22 damages to property arising out of collisions or other negligent acts, 23 products liability suits, 24 and violent dispossession of property. 25 Unlike contract cases, maritime tort jurisdiction historically depended exclusively upon the commission of the wrongful act upon navigable waters, regardless of any connection or lack of connection with shipping or commerce. 26 The Court has now held, however, that in addition to the requisite situs a significant relationship to traditional maritime activity must exist in order for the admiralty jurisdiction of the federal courts to be invoked. 27 Both the Court and Congress have created exceptions to the situs test for maritime tort jurisdiction to extend landward the occasions for certain connected persons or events to come within admiralty, not without a little controversy. 28
From the earliest days of the Republic, the federal courts sitting in admiralty have been held to have exclusive jurisdiction of prize cases. 29 Also, in contrast to other phases of admiralty jurisdiction, prize law as applied by the British courts continued to provide the basis of American law so far as practicable, 30 and so far as it was not modified by subsequent legislation, treaties, or executive proclamations. Finally, admiralty and maritime jurisdiction includes the seizure and forfeiture of vessels engaged in activities in violation of the laws of nations or municipal law, such as illicit trade, 31 infraction of revenue laws, 32 and the like. 33
Procedure in admiralty jurisdiction differs in few respects from procedure in actions at law, but the differences that do exist are significant. 34 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. 35 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. 36 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 thus considered a common-law remedy. Although the Supreme Court sometimes has used language that would confine all proceedings in rem to admiralty courts, 37 such actions in state courts have been sustained in cases of forfeiture arising out of violations of state law. 38
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. 39 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. 40
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 Jefferson 41 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. 42 The demands of commerce on western waters led Congress to enact a statute extending admiralty jurisdiction over the Great Lakes and connecting waters, 43 and in The Genessee Chief v. Fitzhugh 44 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 or not, which are navigable in fact. 45 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, 46 but these date from the time when it was thought the commerce power furnished the support for congressional legislation in this field.