The founders broadly agreed that the federal courts would exercise admiralty jurisdiction, since maritime suits often involved questions of national importance that implicated commerce, international relations, and the rights of foreign citizens. The exercise of admiralty jurisdiction by the federal judiciary represented an important transfer of authority from state to federal courts, which functioned according to unique procedures and laws rooted in federal statutes, ancient civil codes, and international custom.
Article III of the Constitution states that the "judicial power shall extend . . . to all Cases of admiralty and maritime Jurisdiction." In the Judiciary Act of 1789, Congress granted to the district courts exclusive original jurisdiction in civil cases in admiralty and maritime matters. Admiralty jurisdiction had its roots in England, where maritime cases were tried in admiralty courts separate from the common law courts. When sitting in admiralty, federal courts operated according to distinct procedures and substantive law. Many traditional admiralty matters were proceedings in rem , meaning they involved claims, or libels, against vessels rather than against individuals. Perhaps the most important difference between admiralty and common law courts was that admiralty judges conducted trials without juries and applied general maritime law. While the 1789 Act specified that district court jurisdiction would be "exclusive," the statute included a clause "saving to suitors the right of a common law remedy, where the common law is competent to give it." In practice, this gave state courts concurrent jurisdiction over many types of contract and tort cases involving maritime subjects.
One of the central functions of admiralty jurisdiction was the hearing of prize cases. In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, nations, including the United States, commissioned privateers to capture the merchant vessels of their enemies during hostilities. Privateers brought captured vessels before admiralty courts, which determined the legitimacy of the capture, condemned and sold the ship and its cargo, and distributed the proceeds to the privateer as compensation. In 1794, the Supreme Court ruled in The Sloop Betsey that the district courts had exclusive jurisdiction over prizes, and Congress, in the Neutrality Act of the same year, confirmed district court jurisdiction over all cases of capture made within U.S. waters.
District court prize jurisdiction was especially important during the frequent hostilities between the United States, France, and Britain between the 1790s and 1815. The courts adjudicated prize claims by American and foreign privateers as well as American naval crews claiming bounties under congressional statutes. Prize cases were never a large proportion of district court business, and such cases faded in importance in the nineteenth century; Congress prohibited the president to commission privateers after the War of 1812, and European nations outlawed the practice in 1856. The district courts heard a small number of prize claims by naval crews claiming bounties during the Mexican-American War, the Civil War, and the Spanish-American War, after which Congress repealed the bounty statutes.
Congress also relied on federal courts sitting in admiralty to enforce the nation's trade and revenue laws. The 1789 Judiciary Act stated that the district courts would have jurisdiction over all seizures under the revenue, navigation, and trade laws of the United States when the seizures were made on the high seas and on waters navigable from the sea by vessels "of ten or more tons burthen." The majority of admiralty cases brought before the district courts in the 1790s were government seizures to enforce revenue laws. The district courts also heard seizure cases arising from the enforcement of a congressional ban on American ships participating in the international slave trade. Some parties initially challenged the legitimacy of nonjury admiralty trials to enforce revenue and trade laws, but the Supreme Court in the 1796 case of La Vengeance upheld their constitutionality based on the fact that proceedings were in rem rather than against individual ship owners.
The remainder of admiralty cases in the district courts were private civil suits that involved maritime subjects. Among the most common contract disputes in admiralty were suits by seamen to recover unpaid wages. General maritime law offered unique protections to seamen, whose jobs involved dangerous duties and long journeys at sea. Federal courts sitting in admiralty also adjudicated claims for salvage awards. In salvage cases, the court determined the compensation allowed to individuals who saved a ship from peril on the seas or recovered ships lost at sea through capture or shipwreck.
Neither the Constitution nor the Judiciary Act of 1789 defined what types of cases constituted "admiralty and maritime matters," leaving the federal courts to establish the boundaries of that jurisdiction. In most cases, the Supreme Court rejected limits that had been set in England and gave the federal courts broad jurisdiction in admiralty over civil contracts and torts. In the 1815 case of DeLovio v. Boit , Justice Joseph Story, sitting as circuit justice in the Circuit Court for the District of Massachusetts, ruled that the federal courts possessed admiralty jurisdiction over marine insurance contracts, regardless of where the contract was executed. (English admiralty courts exercised jurisdiction only over contracts made and executed upon the sea.) Story's definition was eventually adopted by the Supreme Court and extended admiralty jurisdiction over contracts relating to the carriage of goods, chartering of ships, repair of ships, and services like towage and pilotage, disputes over which had previously been litigated in state court.
Supreme Court decisions in the mid-nineteenth century also expanded federal admiralty jurisdiction over injury and tort suits-such as ship collisions, damage to transported goods, and passenger injuries-that had previously been part of state court jurisdiction. In the 1825 case of The Thomas Jefferson , the Supreme Court ruled that federal admiralty jurisdiction extended only as far as the ebb and flow of the tide, just as it had in England. In the 1851 decision in The Genesee Chief , however, the Supreme Court overturned The Thomas Jefferson and ruled that the Constitution granted the judiciary admiralty jurisdiction over all "navigable waters," which included waters that existed wholly within the borders of a state. The Supreme Court defined "navigable waters" in The Daniel Ball in 1871 as those "which form . . . a continued highway over which commerce is or may be carried on with other states or foreign countries." In the 1883 case of Ex Parte Boyer , the Supreme Court ruled that this definition included man-made canals as well. In addition, the Supreme Court in 1866 ruled in The Hine v. Trevor and in The Moses Taylor that while states had concurrent jurisdiction over maritime suits against individuals, all suits in rem were exclusive to the federal courts, since the common law had no similar procedure for dealing with such cases.
Admiralty and maritime cases increased in frequency after the 1850s and remained a major portion of some lower courts' business in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In coastal districts that were home to major ports, such as Louisiana, New Jersey, Eastern Pennsylvania, Maryland, Eastern Virginia, Oregon, and Western Washington, admiralty cases accounted for well over half of all private suits in the late nineteenth century. The Southern and Eastern Districts of New York received the vast majority of admiralty cases in the federal courts. In other coastal districts with little other litigation, such as Rhode Island and Delaware, the few admiralty cases represented the majority of their caseloads. Admiralty was also a large proportion of the caseloads in districts that bordered the Great Lakes, like Eastern Michigan and Northern Illinois. The overall number of admiralty cases remained steady in the first decades of the twentieth century, with a spike in cases only during World War I. Admiralty declined as a total proportion of court caseloads beginning in the late 1920s, as other criminal and civil cases grew in number.
Congress in the 1920s passed a number of statutes that granted seamen, other maritime workers, and their survivors the right to pursue actions at law in federal court for injuries or death resulting from employer negligence. These laws provided remedies that went beyond those traditionally available under general maritime law. Congress also in the 1920s expanded the ability of individuals to sue the United States for maritime-related injuries. Congress in 1948 passed the Admiralty Extension Act, which provided that admiralty and maritime jurisdiction extended to damage or injury caused by a vessel on navigable water even if the damage or injury took place on land. In 1953, Congress passed the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act to govern leased federal lands in the Continental Shelf, which the Supreme Court has interpreted to extend federal admiralty jurisdiction to workers engaged in offshore operations. In addition, the United States has joined international agreements that have been incorporated into the general maritime law in areas like salvage, commercial shipping, and maritime labor regulations.
Admiralty jurisdiction faded as an important source of business in the district courts during the late twentieth century. In 1966, the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure eliminated the separate admiralty docket and admiralty rules of procedure. Plaintiffs may still avail themselves of some supplemental admiralty rules-such as proceedings in rem -by designating an action as admiralty when filing a civil action. The Supreme Court narrowed the application of admiralty rules and law beginning in 1972, when the Court established that a "maritime nexus" must exist for a tort to proceed in admiralty. The maritime nexus rule holds that in addition to taking place on navigable waters, the injury or damage must have a significant relationship with traditional maritime activity and a potentially disruptive effect on maritime commerce.
William R. Casto, "The Origins of Federal Admiralty Jurisdiction in an Age of Privateers, Smugglers, and Pirates," American Journal of Legal History 37 (1993): 117-57.
Jonathan M. Gutoff, "Original Understandings and the Private Law: Origins of the Federal Admiralty Jurisdiction," Journal of Maritime Law and Commerce 30, no. 3 (July 1999): 361-404.
Dwight F. Henderson, Courts for a New Nation (Washington, D.C.: Public Affairs Press, 1971).
David W. Robertson, Admiralty and Federalism: History and Analysis of Problems of Federal-State Relations in the Maritime Law of the United States (Mineola, NY: Foundation Press, 1970).