The judicial Power shall extend to ...all Cases of admiralty and maritime Jurisdiction....

Article III, Section 2, Clause 1

In England, a long-established separate system of courts, beginning with Edward III, dealt with maritime and admiralty issues. According to Sir William Blackstone in Commentaries on the Laws of England, these courts had jurisdiction "to determine all maritime injuries, arising upon the seas, or in parts out of the reach of the common law." During the Revolution, state prize courts often violated international law by condemning prizes belonging to sister states, or nations that were neutral or even allies of the United States. Consequently, after Independence, both the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution gave the national government exclusive admiralty and maritime jurisdiction. In Philadelphia, the only debate among the Framers of the Constitution was whether to lodge admiralty questions in a separate court or, as they finally decided, in the federal judiciary. There was unanimity, even among the Anti-Federalists, that this power should be national.

Congress, under the Judiciary Act of 1789, gave the district courts exclusive jurisdiction over admiralty and maritime cases, now codified in 28 U.S.C. § 1333. The clause also accords exclusive federal jurisdiction to captures and prize cases, codified in 28 U.S.C. § 1333(2). See Glass v. The Sloop Betsey (1794); The Paquete Habana (1900). Further, Congress possesses broad power to alter traditional admiralty and maritime rules, though it cannot delegate such power to the states. Knickerbocker Ice Co. v. Stewart (1920).

According to Justice Joseph Story in his Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States, admiralty and maritime jurisdiction "extends to all acts and torts done upon the high seas, and within the ebb and flow of the sea, and to all maritime contracts, that is to all contracts touching trade, navigation, or business upon the sea, or the waters of the sea within the ebb and flow of the tide." See DeLovio v. Boit (1815); United States v. Wiltberger (1820); Waring v. Clarke (1847). In 1845, breaking from English precedent, Congress extended admiralty jurisdiction to include inland navigable lakes and rivers. In 1948, Congress further expanded jurisdiction to "include all cases of damage or injury, to person or property, caused by a vessel on navigable water, notwithstanding that such damage or injury be done or consummated on land." At first, the Court, in Gutierrez v. Waterman Steamship Corp. (1963), held that this act covered injuries that occur to a person while on a dock loading or unloading a vessel; but in Victory Carriers, Inc. v. Law (1971), the Court limited Gutierrez to situations where the injury is "caused by appurtenance of a ship."

In addition to tort claims under admiralty law, the Court has dealt with federal jurisdiction over maritime contracts. In Justice Joseph Story's lengthy and influential opinion in DeLovio, the Court stated that maritime jurisdiction covers "all contracts, (wheresoever they may be made or executed, or whatsoever may be the form of the stipulations) which relate to the navigation, business, or commerce of the sea." In that case, the Court broke new ground by extending maritime jurisdiction to maritime insurance contracts. Whether a contract is "purely maritime" has been a cornerstone of maritime jurisdiction. For example, in People's Ferry Co. v. Beers (1858), the Court held that a construction contract to build a ship, as opposed to a repair contract, was not covered under maritime jurisdiction.

Generally, the federal judiciary has exclusive jurisdiction over admiralty and maritime issues. The Judiciary Act of 1789, however, created an exception known as the savings clause, which states: "saving to suitors, in all cases, the right of a common law remedy, where the common law is competent to give it." It is currently codified in 28 U.S.C. § 1333(1). In Waring v. Clarke, the Court stated that the purpose behind the savings clause was to preserve a right to trial by jury whenever possible (admiralty and maritime cases typically involve bench trials). In The Moses Taylor (1866), the Court made the distinction that federal courts have exclusive jurisdiction over in rem suits and concurrent jurisdiction with the states over in personam suits insofar as in personam jurisdiction is part of the state's traditional common-law jurisdiction. A state even has jurisdiction over an in rem proceeding if the state is seeking the common-law remedy of forfeiture. C. J. Hendry Co. v. Moore (1943).

A state's concurrent jurisdiction over in personam suits is not without limits, however. The scope of those limits has been a highly disputed subject in the Supreme Court's jurisprudence. For many decades, the Supreme Court held, for example, that state workers'-compensation laws as applied to maritime injuries invaded the exclusive jurisdiction of Congress. Southern Pacific Co. v. Jensen (1917). Nor would the Court permit Congress to delegate such authority to the states. Knickerbocker Ice Co. v. Stewart (1920). Finally, Congress itself passed the Longshoremen's and Harbor Workers' Compensation Act in 1927, but reserved application of the act only after state law had been held to be inapplicable. The post-1938 Court upheld the act. Parker v. Motor Boat Sales, Inc. (1941). But Congress's attempt to protect the concurrent jurisdiction of the states was dealt a blow by the Court in Calbeck v. Travelers Insurance Co. (1962). Justice William J. Brennan, Jr., writing for the majority, essentially deleted recourse to state jurisdiction from the statute. As a result, the federal statute now applies regardless of whether an appropriate state remedy is available. Justices Potter Stewart and John M. Harlan dissented on the ground that the majority was rewriting the clear language and undoing the legislative history of the statute. Since that time, both Congress and the Court have continued to try to define the appropriate limits to state jurisdiction in statutes and cases. See United States v. Locke (2000); Lewis v. Lewis & Clark Marine, Inc. (2001).

Prior to 1875, the Supreme Court was able to exercise appellate review over both the facts and the law in admiralty and maritime suits. In fact, Justice Joseph Story has argued that the real goal of the controversial Appellate Jurisdiction Clause (Article III, Section 2, Clause 2) "was to retain the power of reviewing the fact, as well as the law, in cases of admiralty and maritime jurisdiction." In an effort to relieve the Supreme Court of a rather cumbersome caseload, Congress limited appellate review over admiralty and maritime disputes to issues of law.

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David F. Forte
Professor of Law
Cleveland-Marshall College of Law