Admiralty and maritime law Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Laws and international treatises governing marine navigation and commerce, the transportation over water of property and people, and other issues involving navigable waters, including oceans, gulfs, coastal regions, and inland waterways.

Article III, Section 2, of the U.S. Constitution provides that federal judicial power shall extend to “all cases of admiralty and maritime jurisdiction.” Virtually every admiralty and maritime case in the United States is fundamentally a matter of constitutional law. Nowhere, however, does the Constitution or any act of Congress define the nature and limits of this national jurisdiction.

The preponderance of Supreme Court decisions and legal scholarship interpret the language of the clause and its placement within the Constitution as stipulating only the courts that can decide maritime cases. The clause does not delegate to the Court the authority to develop its own rules of decision. In the Court’s view, the Constitution gives Congress the power to enact and amend maritime laws.


The Framers of the Constitution gave the Court exclusive prerogative to determine the appropriate jurisdiction for maritime cases so that there would be only one body of maritime laws. Uniform maritime laws foster the nation’s economic health and security. Most major trading countries, including the United States, have laws (called cabotage laws) to assure reliable domestic shipping service and a maritime capability subject to national control in times of war or other emergency. The conflicting state laws found in colonial America were detrimental to the development and prosperity of the new country.

The words “admiralty” and “maritime” are virtually synonymous. Historically, though, the term “maritime” referred to oceans and other vast bodies of water, whereas “admiralty” referred to the judges who presided over the English courts and American colonies.

The relationship of an event or occurrence to a vessel or to navigable waters often determines the boundaries of U.S. admiralty jurisdiction. In many cases, however, admiralty jurisdiction rests in whole or in part on finding that the event or occurrence has a “maritime flavor.” The key to determining a maritime flavor lies in determining whether the lack of a uniform national law or regulation governing this matter will have a substantial effect on the shipping industry. The measurement of the effect includes determining the availability of manpower, customers, and capital from within the United States, and the willingness of foreign carriers to traffic within ports of the United States. This standard determines whether a matter falls in federal or state jurisdiction. In contract matters, for example, admiralty jurisdiction depends on the nature of the transaction. In matters involving alleged wrongful acts, injury, or damage (or the law of torts), jurisdiction depends on the locality. In tort actions, plaintiffs must show the activity giving rise to the incident had a substantial relationship to a traditional maritime activity such as the injury of a person on an unseaworthy vessel.

Settling Admiralty Disputes

In 1789 Congress enacted the Judiciary Act to exercise its constitutional mandate to establish a system of federal courts with exclusive jurisdiction in admiralty matters. These courts became, in effect, the ultimate arbiters of admiralty disputes. No separate courts of admiralty were created.

Federal district court judges decide whether a case will be decided under federal or state law. When national interests are at stake, the Court has ruled that state maritime interests must bow to federal law. State laws that threaten the uniformity of national maritime law and the national interest are unconstitutional. Under the maritime but local doctrine, where a matter is maritime, but there is neither federal law nor a perceived need for uniformity, a court may use state law to decide the case. Congress added a saving to suitors clause that allowed state courts to have jurisdiction where a common-law remedy existed.

During World War I, the Court clarified which courts may hear maritime cases and what law governs the disposition of such cases. In Southern Pacific Co. v. Jensen[case]Southern Pacific Co. v. Jensen[Southern Pacific Co. v. Jensen] (1917) and Chelentis v. Luckenbach Steamship Co.[case]Chelentis v. Luckenbach Steamship Co.[Chelentis v. Luckenbach Steamship Co.] (1918), the Court established a two-step test for determining maritime jurisdiction and legal principles and rights. The first step is to determine whether the focus of a case is an admiralty and maritime cause of action. Such a claim may exist under the federal maritime case law governing the jurisdiction of tort and contract actions in admiralty or by virtue of a federal law. In addition, the Court has indicated states may modify or supplement federal maritime law, but they may not flatly contradict it or deprive any person of a substantive federal right. Assuming such a cause of action exists, the second step is for a judge to determine whether the case belongs in state court or federal district court.

Although admiralty jurisdiction includes the sea and other navigable waters, the sea is the primary domain of the admiralty jurisdiction. The bulk of maritime law is federal. Much of it is international in scope. The majority of maritime controversies relate to vessels, and most transactions concerning or involving ships and navigation are within admiralty jurisdiction. Admiralty cases are filed either against the property (in rem) or against individuals and their organizations (in personam). Plaintiffs have the option of filing an in personam action in either federal or state court. The right to proceed in rem is the distinctive and exclusive remedy of the federal courts exercising admiralty jurisdiction. No state can confer jurisdiction on its courts to proceed in rem for any cause of action within admiralty jurisdiction. According to the Court, the Constitution prohibits Congress from delegating such a power to a state. State legislatures cannot constitutionally restrict federal jurisdiction but can only ensure that other remedies, if applicable, remain available.

The basis of the in rem proceeding is the maritime lien, or a claim on a property as security for payment of a just debt. The difference between the maritime lien and other liens is that the maritime lien is generally independent of possession and remains in effect even if the property is sold. Although a personal maritime liability may exist without a lien, the lien itself may be on the property even though the owner of the vessel is not liable. The vessel in question is taken into custody of the court. The owner of the vessel in contention will normally post a bond, thus securing release of the vessel. If the lien is upheld, the vessel is sold at a court auction, with the proceeds going to the plaintiff up to an amount sufficient to satisfy the lien.

Maritime law regulates the rights and obligations of the states and relations with foreign states. The reach of admiralty law extends to all navigable waters, including rivers, streams, and lakes, as long as the body of water has an interstate nexus. Without such federal power, domestic and foreign participants in maritime shipping and commerce would be subject to varying state laws, which could have an adverse effect on the nation’s maritime commerce, natural resources, and shipping.

Admiralty jurisdiction is determined by either the waters/vessel test or the activity or type of lawsuit test. Admiralty jurisdiction extends to all waters, with or without tides, salt or fresh, natural or artificial, which are navigable in interstate or foreign water commerce. Federal statutes define a watercraft as a contrivance capable of being used as a means of transportation over water. Lawsuits that fall within admiralty jurisdiction include contracts for the transportation of goods and passengers, contracts for repairs and supplies furnished to vessels such as towage, and contracts for the services of sea personnel.


Maritime law is among the oldest branches of law in the world. U.S. admiralty law developed from British admiralty courts present in most of the American colonies. At the time of the Revolutionary War, each state maintained its own admiralty courts. The Articles of Confederation gave the Continental Congress jurisdiction to hear appeals over cases involving the seizure of foreign vessels and their prize cargoes. These courts functioned separately from courts of law and equity, which were resorted to when statute and common laws proved unjust.

During the early history of the federal judiciary, each federal district court had three dockets law, equity, and admiralty. If a matter was based on federal admiralty jurisdiction, the case would be placed on the admiralty docket and decided by special admiralty rules interpreted by a judge “sitting in admiralty” and lawyers called “proctors in admiralty.” With the passage of the Judiciary Act, though, Congress placed admiralty under the jurisdiction of the federal district courts. By the mid-1940’s, the federal district courts with separate admiralty dockets had discontinued them. Although admiralty law shares much in common with civil law, it is separate from it.

Admiralty and maritime law developed in response to the practical problems and controversies of trade and commerce, including commerce, fishing, and navigation. Trade requires dependable and uniform laws and courts. State law yields to the uniform federal maritime law to preserve harmony in the multifarious transactions on the ocean, seas, lakes, and rivers. Traditionally, admiralty courts had jurisdiction over maritime contracts that included such contracts as charter-parties, contracts for maritime services (building, supplying, and navigating ships), and contracts between shipowners.

Not all maritime matters are controlled by federal law. The Court, in Romeo v. International Terminal Operating Co.[case]Romeo v. International Terminal Operating Co.[Romeo v. International Terminal Operating Co.] (1959), said the states and federal government have joint roles that correspond to the realities of power, interest, and national power. The states have wide regulatory power, especially in the areas of maritime torts and contracts.

Because the coasts and oceans of the United States are a highly valued geographical asset and biological resource, laws protect them in the interests of the public. In Shively v. Bowlby[case]Shively v. Bowlby[Shively v. Bowlby] (1894), the Court ruled that lands under navigable waters are owned in the public trust for the benefit of all the people. The protection has grown to include recreational sites, fish and wildlife habitats, aquatic life, lands preserved for scientific purposes, and lands devoted to the enjoyment of natural scenic beauty.

Procedural differences existed between maritime cases and other civil proceedings until 1966, when the Court approved amendments to the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure that brought admiralty and maritime procedural rules into accord with those used in other civil suits. On the admiralty side of the court, litigants, however, are still not entitled to trial by jury either by constitutional or statutory right.

The Court’s exclusive prerogative to determine what matters fall within admiralty and maritime jurisdiction exists to ensure uniformity in maritime law. Uniformity is the key to the nation’s prosperity and security. As the ultimate arbiter of maritime matters, the Court balances the uses of maritime resources with the conservation of those resources. The Court’s constitutional mandate is to safeguard, protect, and restore the nation’s stake in its navigable waterways.

Further Reading
  • The body of law on the sea and waterways is voluminous. For an overview, read Frank L. Maraist’s Admiralty in a Nutshell (3d ed., St. Paul, Minn.: West Publishing, 1996). Readers will find the discussion of the origin and development of the Court’s jurisdiction in maritime matters insightful. Significant Court decisions are analyzed and explained in layman’s terms. To understand the origin of the Court’s admiralty jurisdiction, refer to Modern Constitutional Law (2d ed., St. Paul, Minn.: West Group, 1997). For a comprehensive analysis of all facets of admiralty and maritime law, turn to the multivolume Benedict on Admiralty (New York: Matthew Bender, 1999), edited by Steven F. Friedell. Erastus C. Benedict published the first edition more than 150 years ago. Updates are published as significant developments occur in maritime law. Another useful multivolume work is Thomas J. Schoenbaum’s Admiralty and Maritime Law (2d ed., St. Paul, Minn.: West Publishing, 1994). Donna R. Christie discusses the Court’s impact on coastal and ocean resource development, preservation, and regulation in Coastal and Ocean Management Law in a Nutshell (St. Paul, Minn.: West Publishing, 1994). For a concise summary of the Court’s authority in admiralty and maritime cases, read David P. Currie’s Federal Jurisdiction in a Nutshell (St. Paul, Minn.: West Publishing, 1990).

Bates v. State Bar of Arizona

Constitutional interpretation

Delegation of powers

Genesee Chief v. Fitzhugh

Judiciary Act of 1789

Lower federal courts

State courts

States’ rights and state sovereignty

Understanding tests

Categories: History