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Admiralty and maritime

During Friday’s webinar for Legacy Family Tree Webinar subscribers on federal court records, one of the attendees asked a great question about a particular phrase in the United States Constitution.

pirateRemember that the powers of federal courts are limited by the section of the Constitution that spells out what it calls the “judicial power of the United States.”1 There are nine specific types of cases to which the judicial power extends, one of which is “to all cases of admiralty and maritime jurisdiction.”2

So… what’s the difference between “admiralty” and “maritime”?

Not a whole lot, really, but by using both terms the writers of the Constitution made sure to include everything that happened on the navigable waters of the United States.

Admiralty, by definition, is a “court exercising jurisdiction over maritime causes, both civil and criminal, and marine affairs, commerce and navigation, controversies arising out of acts done upon or relating to the sea, and over questions of prize. Also, the system of jurisprudence relating to and growing out of the jurisdiction and practice of the admiralty courts.”3 And, in American law, the term refers to a “tribunal exercising jurisdiction overall maritime contracts, torts, injuries, or offenses.”4

Maritime, by definition, means “pertaining to the sea or ocean or the navigation thereof; or to commerce conducted by navigation of the sea or (in America) of the great lakes and rivers.”5 And maritime jurisdiction is defined as jurisdiction “in maritime causes; such jurisdiction as belongs to a court of admiralty…”6

The key difference between the two — to the extent that a difference was ever really important — comes when you look at the definition of maritime law or maritime cause. That’s when it becomes clear that the focus of maritime law is on the business of shipping, while the focus of admiralty is on everything that happens on navigable waters.

Maritime law is defined as:

That system of law which particularly relates to commerce and navigation, to business transacted at sea or relating to navigation, to ships and shipping, to seamen, to the transportation of persons and property by sea, and to marine affairs generally.

The law relating to harbors, ships, and seamen. An important branch of the commercial law of maritime nations; divided into a variety of departments, such as those about harbors, property of ships, duties and rights of masters and seamen, contracts of affreightment, average, salvage, etc.7

And a maritime cause is a “cause of action originating on the high seas, or growing out of a maritime contract,”8 a cause “arising from maritime contracts, whether made at sea or on land, that is, such as relate to the commerce, business or navigation of the sea; as, charter parties, affreightments, marine loans, hypothecations, contracts for maritime service in building, repairing, supplying and navigating ships, contracts and quasi contracts respecting averages, contributions and jettisons; contracts relating to marine insurance, and those between owners of ships”.9

Admiralty, by contrast, includes all of those maritime business issues — and more. Such as piracy and prize cases and actions by sailors for their wages and when they’re injured on board ship.

So admiralty and maritime jurisdiction is the whole shooting match when it comes to what happens on navigable waterways — and the Constitution gives power over all of it to the federal courts.

Great question…


Image:, user liftarn.

  1. United States Constitution, Article III, §1.
  2. Ibid., §2.
  3. Henry Campbell Black, A Dictionary of Law (St. Paul, Minn. : West, 1891), 41, “admiralty.”
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid., 754, “maritime.”
  6. Ibid., 754-755, “maritime jurisdiction.”
  7. Ibid., 755, “maritime law.”
  8. Ibid., 754, “maritime cause.”
  9. John Bouvier, A Law Dictionary Adapted to the Constitution and Laws of the United States of America and of the Several States of the American Union, rev. 6th ed. (1856); HTML reprint, The Constitution Society ( : accessed 12 July 2015), “maritime cause.”
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