Origins of Federal Admiralty Jurisdiction in an Age of Privateers, Smugglers, and Pirates
Casto, William R.
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The purpose of this essay is to provide a glimpse of a world of admiralty litigation quite foreign to the late twentieth century experience. In this forgotten world there was a clear consensus on the need to create federal admiralty courts, and we may assume that the Founding Generation understood this collectively felt need. But two hundred years later, we remember only the consensus. The reasons underlying the original agreement on admiralty jurisdiction have been lost. Leading admiralty scholars lament "the almost total lack of light on the genesis of [the Constitution's admiralty] clause." Nevertheless, surviving documentary evidence indicates quite clearly that the admiralty clause was placed in the Constitution and the federal admiralty courts were subsequently created to assure complete federal jurisdiction over three specific categories of litigation: prize cases, criminal prosecutions, and cases arising under federal revenue laws. The evidence further indicates that the Founding Generation was unconcerned about the need for a national-as opposed to state-admiralty jurisdiction over private civil litigation.