The United States Constitution and Congress have expressly granted admiralty and maritime jurisdiction to the federal courts. Exercising this authority, admiralty judges have enunciated principles of maritime law that provide both certainty to commercial shipping and protection to those who risk life or property at sea. Moreover, the image of the great maritime judges and their opinions have been a beacon to judges in other areas of the law.
After two centuries of leadership, the tide has begun to turn on admiralty judges. The Supreme Court--whose members are admiralty judges when they hear admiralty appeals--has recently abandoned its Constitutional duty of enunciating maritime law in favor of conforming admiralty law to Congressional enactments and filling in gaps in maritime law only when authorized by Congress. Apparently admiralty judges should now assume the role of followers rather than leaders. Have admiralty judges become flotsam on the sea of maritime law?
II. WHAT IS ADMIRALTY AND MARITIME LAW?
A. The Power and Authority of Admiralty Judges
The importance of the admiralty judge in the United States precedes the adoption of the United States Constitution. Admiralty courts sat in the colonies that bordered the sea long before the Declaration of Independence. (1) After the colonies declared their independence, admiralty courts were established in all of the states to adjudicate admiralty claims. (2) Even when the colonies were governed by the Articles of Confederation, however, the states recognized the necessity of uniform admiralty law. Thus, the Articles conferred on the Continental Congress the authority to establish courts for appeal of maritime matters. (3)
The weakness of the central government under the Articles of Confederation was felt in the judicial and maritime areas as strongly as in any other realm. Justice Pitney noted that "one of the chief weaknesses of the Confederation was in the absence of a judicial establishment possessed of general authority." (4) It was not enough for the Continental Congress to establish a maritime court of appeals to hear appeals from state courts. "The weak point of the system was the absence of power in the central government to enforce the judgment of the appellate tribunal if it had to reverse the decree of the state court." (5)
When the Constitutional Convention was held in 1787, the Founding Fathers had to address the necessity of a system of federal courts and whether such federal courts should be granted jurisdiction over admiralty cases. Although there was substantial debate over the extent of power and jurisdiction of federal judges, the grant of admiralty jurisdiction to the federal courts was added "without controversy." (6) Alexander Hamilton stated the following:
[The most bigoted idolizers of State authority have not
thus far shown a disposition to deny the national
judiciary the cognizance of maritime causes.] These so
generally depend on the laws of nations and so
commonly affect the rights of foreigners that they fall
within the considerations which are relative to the
public peace. The most important part of them are, by
the present Confederation, submitted to federal
The result of the Constitutional Convention was a strong affirmation of the need of federal authority over admiralty: "The judicial Power shall extend ... to all Cases of admiralty and maritime jurisdiction ..." (8) The significance of this power given to the federal judiciary to hear admiralty and maritime cases is demonstrated by the fact that this is the only grant of jurisdiction in the Constitution that identifies an area of substantive law. Federal authority over admiralty and maritime law is addressed only in the Judicial Article. Oddly, the Constitution does not contain a similar grant of specific authority to Congress over admiralty and maritime law. …