Bases of Admiralty Law and Jurisdiction

Article III, section 2 of the United States Constitution empowers the federal judiciary to hear “all Cases of admiralty and maritime Jurisdiction.” The federal courts have been required to determine the territorial scope and the types of cases that are included within it, as well as the kinds of relief that can be granted.  Congress has the power to broaden the admiralty jurisdiction of the federal courts.  The framers of the Constitution conferred admiralty and maritime jurisdiction on the federal courts because of the vital importance that international and interstate shipping had to the new nation.

The specific foundation for admiralty jurisdiction in the federal courts is the provision of the Constitution that the judicial power of the United States shall extend to all cases “of admiralty and maritime jurisdiction.”  The Constitution fixed only the original jurisdiction of the Supreme Court as to admiralty cases.  The constitutional provision impliedly contains three grants:[i]

  • it empowers Congress to confer admiralty and maritime jurisdiction on the tribunals inferior to the Supreme Court;
  • it empowers the federal courts in their exercise of admiralty and maritime jurisdiction to draw on the substantive law inherent in that jurisdiction; and
  • it empowers Congress to revise and supplement the maritime law within the limits of the Constitution.

The Commerce Clause is a sufficient basis for federal admiralty power over some matters of a maritime nature.  However, te admiralty power of Congress and the admiralty jurisdiction of the federal courts are not limited to matters that fall within the scope of the Commerce Clause.

Although the Constitution extends judicial power of the United States to all cases, in law and equity, the provisions of the Judicial Code granting original jurisdiction to the federal courts in civil actions wherein the matter in controversy arises under the Constitution, laws, or treaties of the United States do not extend to matters in admiralty arising under the general maritime law and not covered by specified federal legislation.

The states do not have power to create or enforce any admiralty or maritime rule that conflicts with federal legislation, either directly or indirectly.  Therefore, a state statute or a ruling of a state court shall not override the law of admiralty as determined by the federal courts.  Furthermore, Congress cannot transfer its legislative power in admiralty matters to the states, since by nature that power is nondelegable.  Admiralty law is subject to modification by the paramount authority of Congress acting in pursuance of its powers under the admiralty and maritime clause and the necessary and proper clause and, the commerce clause.

Although a state law cannot give jurisdiction to a federal court, a right given by state law can be enforced in the proper federal tribunal. The state statute in such a case does not confer jurisdiction, but existing federal jurisdiction is invoked to give effect to a right created by a state statute.  Decisions of the federal courts have played an important part in the development of American admiralty law.  In the absence of a controlling statute, some opinions of the Supreme Court speak of “judicially created” admiralty law, and of “judiciary legislation.” However, court-made admiralty law generally applies only in the absence of relevant federal statutory law.

[i] Romeo v. International Terminal Operating Co., 358 U.S. 354 (U.S. 1959)


Inside Bases of Admiralty Law and Jurisdiction