The Heritage Guide to the Constitution


Article III, Section 2, Clause 1

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

In England, a separate system of courts that dated to the reign of Edward III dealt with maritime and admiralty issues. “Maritime” originally applied to the high seas, while “admiralty” applied to areas such as harbors and inlets, though the two terms eventually became synonymous. The substance of traditional admiralty law lay in the civil law, in opposition to and competition with the common law. It covered activities in the country’s territorial sea, and beyond, as permitted by international law. 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.” In the English tradition, then, admiralty jurisdiction did not reach land or inland waters, which were subject to the common law. Thus, when England enforced the Stamp Act (1765) through the admiralty courts, the colonists rebelled against losing their “inestimable” common law right of trial by jury (admiralty and maritime cases typically involve bench trials).

During the Revolution, maritime states exercised their own admiralty jurisdiction. But 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. The Articles of Confederation divided admiralty jurisdiction between the states and the United States, but 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.

Admiralty law covers (1) damages to ships and cargo on the high seas as well as torts, injuries, and crimes and (2) contracts and activities bearing on shipping, transport, and cargoes on the sea. It was obvious to the founding generation that the federal courts would be applying a preexisting body of maritime law that was observed by most maritime nations. Both John Adams and Alexander Hamilton practiced admiralty law. According to Chief Justice John Marshall, maritime cases before federal courts do not “arise under the Constitution or laws of the United States” but “are as old as navigation itself.” American Ins. Co. v. 356 Bales of Cotton, Canter (1828).

Though there is no grant of power in the Constitution to Congress to regulate maritime law as such, Congress has in fact modified its content. Some Supreme Court decisions assume that the Commerce Clause provides Congress that power. Justice Joseph Bradley, however, held that the Commerce Power was neither a source nor a limitation of Congress’s power to regulate maritime affairs. Rather, because maritime law is national law, “the power to make such amendments [to maritime law] is coextensive with that law. It is not confined to the boundaries or class of subjects which limit and characterize the power to regulate commerce; but, in maritime matters, it extends to all matters and places to which the maritime law extends.” In re Garnett (1891).

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 Admiralty 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). Until 1875, maritime states continued to pass laws regulating activities in their adjacent waters, and federal courts often applied such state law. But in The Lottawanna (1874), the Supreme Court declared that the substance of admiralty law was exclusively federal. In fact, the Court has insisted that Congress’s broad power to alter traditional admiralty and maritime rules does not include the capacity to delegate such power to the states (in contrast to Congress’s power under the Commerce Clause). Knicker-bocker Ice Co. v. Stewart (1920).

In 1845, breaking from English precedent that had limited admiralty jurisdiction to the seas and the ebb and flow of the tides, Congress extended admiralty jurisdiction to include inland navigable lakes and rivers. In an approving response, the Supreme Court held that English statutes restricting admiralty jurisdiction from inland waters were not part of American law at the time of the Constitution. Waring v. Clarke (1847); Genessee Chief v. Fitzhugh (1852).

Admiralty jurisdiction in England also did not cover acts committed on land. But in 1815, Justice Joseph Story declared in DeLovio v. Boit that admiralty jurisdiction includes “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.” See also United States v. Wiltberger (1820); Waring v. Clarke.

In DeLovio, the Court had broken new ground by extending admiralty jurisdiction to maritime insurance contracts. But this only created a new problem: when was a contract truly maritime? Whether a contract is “purely maritime” has been a central question in determining the extent of admiralty 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 under maritime jurisdiction.

Until recently, the Court has held that contracts that had to be performed on both land and sea were cognizable in admiralty only if the application of the contract to land was “merely incidental.” But in 2004, the Supreme Court found that where the primary purpose of the contract is to ship something over water, even if the goods are also shipped over land, the contract is a maritime contract and the federal courts have admiralty jurisdiction. Norfolk Southern Ry. Co. v. James N. Kirby, Pty Ltd. (2004).

Much of admiralty jurisdiction deals with torts, injuries, and prize cases, including shipwrecks and the like. In 1948, Congress expanded admiralty 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 only to situations where the injury is “caused by an appurtenance of a ship.”

Even though the federal courts have expanded the reach of admiralty jurisdiction, nonetheless, Congress has often sought to preserve the states’ jurisdiction wherever possible. States retain jurisdiction over maritime matters in two ways: geographically and substantively. Thus, although federal maritime law now extends to the interior navigable waters of a state, the state courts still have territorial jurisdiction over actions that occur there. When a case involving maritime law is heard in state court, the state judge must apply federal maritime law over state law.

Substantively, Congress has tried to make room for the application of the states’ common law. This has created line-drawing difficulties for the courts. The Judiciary Act of 1789 created an exception known as the savings clause, which defers to the states’ common law jurisdiction. The savings clause reads, “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 (a common law right) whenever possible.

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, but only insofar as in personam jurisdiction is part of the state’s traditional common law jurisdiction. The great majority of cases, however, are in personam, and thus in fact state courts and federal courts have concurrent jurisdiction over most maritime actions. A later Supreme Court case allowed a state to obtain jurisdiction even 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 worker’s compensation laws as applied to maritime injuries invaded the exclusive jurisdiction of Congress. Southern Pacific Co. v. Jensen (1917). In response, Congress tried to allow some range of state jurisdiction in the Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act in 1927, which reserved application of the federal act only after a remedy under 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 exercised 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.” But in an effort to relieve the Supreme Court of a rather cumbersome caseload, Congress has limited appellate review over admiralty and maritime disputes to issues of law.

David F. Forte

Professor, Cleveland-Marshall College of Law

David J. Bederman, Admiralty and the Eleventh Amendment, 72 Notre Dame L. Rev. 935 (1997)

Henry J. Bourguignon, The First Federal Court: The Federal Appellate Prize Court of theAmerican Revolution, 1775-1787 (1977)

William R. Casto, The Origins of Federal Admiralty Jurisdiction in an Age of Privateers, Smugglers, and Pirates, 37 Am. J. Legal Hist. 117 (1993)

Jonathan M. Gutoff, Original Understandings and the Private Law Origins of the Federal Admiralty Jurisdiction: A Reply to Professor Casto, 30 J. Mar. L. & Com. 361 (1999)

Matthew J. Harrington, The Legacy of the Colonial Vice-Admiralty Courts, 26 J. Mar. L. & Com. 581 (1995) and 27 J. Mar. L. & Com. 323 (1996)

Gerald J. Mangone, United States Admiralty Law (1997)

Thomas J. Schoenbaum, Admiralty and Maritime Law (2004)



Graydon S. Staring, The Lingering Inf luence of Richard II and Lord Coke in the American Admiralty, 41 J. Mar. L. & Com. 239 (2010)

Chisholm v. Georgia, 2 U.S. (2 Dall.) 419 (1793)

Glass v. The Sloop Betsey, 3 U.S. (3 Dall.) 6 (1794)

United States v. McGill, 4 U.S. (4 Dall.) 426 (C.C.D. Pa. 1806)

De Lovio v. Boit, 7 F. Cas. 418 (C.C.D. Mass. 1815) (No. 3776)

United States v. Wiltberger, 18 U.S. (5 Wheat.) 76 (1820)

American Ins. Co. v. 356 Bales of Cotton, Canter, 26 U.S. (1 Pet.) 511 (1828)

Waring v. Clarke, 46 U.S. (5 How.) 441 (1847)

New Jersey Steam Nav. Co. v. Merchants’ Bank of Boston, 47 U.S. (6 How.) 344 (1848)

Genesee Chief v. Fitzhugh, 53 U.S. (12 How.) 443 (1852)

People’s Ferry Co. v. Beers, 61 U.S. (20 How.) 393 (1858)

The Moses Taylor, 71 U.S. (4 Wall.) 411 (1866)

The Daniel Ball, 77 U.S. (10 Wall.) 557 (1870)

The Lottawanna, 88 U.S. (21 Wall.) 558 (1874)

Ex parte Easton, 95 U.S. 68 (1877)

The Abbotsford, 98 U.S. 440 (1878)

In re Garnett, 141 U.S. 1 (1891)

The Paquete Habana, 175 U.S. 677 (1900)

Martin v. West, 222 U.S. 191 (1911)

Southern Pacific Co. v. Jensen, 244 U.S. 205 (1917)

North Pacific Steamship Co. v. Hall Bros. Marine Ry. Shipbuilding Co., 249 U.S. 119 (1919)

Knickerbocker Ice Co. v. Stewart, 253 U.S. 149 (1920)

Western Fuel Co. v. Garcia, 257 U.S. 233 (1921) Grant Smith-Porter Ship Co. v. Rohde, 257 U.S. 469

Panama R. Co. v. Johnson, 264 U.S. 375 (1924) Red Cross Line v. Atlantic Fruit Co., 264 U.S. 109 (1924)

Washington v. W. C. Dawson & Co., 264 U.S. 219 (1924)

Langnes v. Green, 282 U.S. 531 (1931)

Marine Transit Corp. v. Dreyfus, 284 U.S. 263 (1932)

United States v. Flores, 289 U.S. 137 (1933)

Parker v. Motor Boat Sales, Inc., 314 U.S. 244 (1941)

Davis v. Dep’t of Labor & Industries, 317 U.S. 249 (1942)

C. J. Hendry Co. v. Moore, 318 U.S. 133 (1943)

O’Donnell v. Great Lakes Dredge & Dock Co., 318 U.S. 36 (1943)

Madruga v. Superior Court of California, 346 U.S. 556 (1954)

Romero v. International Terminal Operating Co., 358 U.S. 354 (1959)

Kossick v. United Fruit Co., 365 U.S. 731 (1961)

Calbeck v. Travelers Ins. Co., 370 U.S. 114 (1962)

Gutierrez v. Waterman Steamship Corp., 373 U.S. 206 (1963)

Nacirema Operating Co. v. Johnson, 396 U.S. 212 (1969)

Victory Carriers, Inc. v. Law, 404 U.S. 202 (1971)

Executive Jet Aviation, Inc. v. Cleveland, 409 U.S. 249 (1972)

Sun Ship v. Pennsylvania, 447 U.S. 715 (1980)

Foremost Ins. Co. v. Richardson, 457 U.S. 668 (1982)

Sisson v. Ruby, 497 U.S. 358 (1990)

Exxon Corp. v. Central Gulf Lines, 500 U.S. 603 (1991)

American Dredging Co. v. Miller, 510 U.S. 443 (1994)

Jerome B. Grubart, Inc. v. Great Lakes Dredge & Dock Co., 513 U.S. 527 (1995)

United States v. Locke, 529 U.S. 89 (2000)

Lewis v. Lewis & Clark Marine, Inc., 531 U.S. 438 (2001)

Norfolk Southern Ry. Co. v. James N. Kirby, Pty Ltd., 543 U.S. 14 (2004)