Admiralty: 1. A court that exercises jurisdiction over all maritime contracts, torts, injuries, or offenses. 2. The system of jurisprudence that has grown out of the practice of admiralty courts. 3. Narrowly, the rules governing contract, tort, and workers'-compensation claims arising out of commerce on or over navigable water.
Maritime law: the body of law governing marine commerce and navigation, the carriage at sea of persons and property, and marine affairs in general; the rules governing contract, tort, and workers'-compensation claims or relating to commerce on or over water. -- Also termed admiralty, admiralty law, sea law.
Law of the sea: the body of international law governing how countries use and control the sea and its resources.
Black's Law Dictionary (10th ed. 2014).
Admiralty, or maritime law, is the private law of navigation and shipping and covers inland as well as marine waters. It is the entire body of laws, rules, legal concepts and procedures that relate to the use of marine resources, ocean commerce, and navigation. Maritime law was shaped by the practical needs of those countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea involved in maritime commerce, the roots of which are traced as far back as 900 B.C. Usually, the need was for legal solutions that had no application on land, therefore, as medieval codes began to emerge in port cities and states of Europe, the customs of mariners and merchants played a large part in the development of maritime laws. These early codes and customary law practices served to shape the current U. S. maritime law. The contracts, torts, offenses or injuries which are results of involvement in sea navigation or commerce make up this unique body of law.
The term, admiralty, specifically refers to the British courts in England and the American colonies, separate courts that traditionally exercised jurisdiction over all regulations and handling of disputes relating to sea navigation and commerce. The American courts in practice adopted English law and procedure but chose early on to include national subject matter jurisdiction. The American colonies after the Revolution provided, through the Judiciary Act of 1789 and Article III § 2 of the U.S. Constitution, exclusive jurisdiction to the federal district courts over admiralty and maritime matters. The U.S. Congress regulates admiralty through the Commerce Clause and provides national uniform rules which prevail in admiralty claims in national or international shipping and commerce. The admiralty courts have limited jurisdiction but have remained a separate entity. They have expanded to include all activities on both the high seas and navigable waters.
Much of U.S. maritime law has evolved through international maritime law in concert with maritime laws of other countries. Federal statutes dealing with maritime issues have been customized, with a basis coming from international treaties and resolutions.
Admiralty jurisdiction is absolute in admiralty claims, and states cannot impose on this power, either through legislation or in the courts. The "saving to suitors" clause, of 28 U.S.C. § 1333(1) allows state courts to hear admiralty and maritime cases when the matter is a local one. The state court, even though it is the chosen venue to hear the case, must apply the federal law of admiralty to the admiralty claim. When no federal statute is applicable, the uniform laws set up by the U.S. Supreme Court must be used, whether in federal or state court. If neither the statute nor the uniform law is applicable, the court may adopt the state law as the appropriate rule of decision. This is known as the "maritime but local" approach in maritime law.
For a thorough overview of this issue, see David W. Robertson, Admiralty and Maritime Litigation in State Court, 55 La. L. Rev. 685 (1995), available at: http://digitalcommons.law.lsu.edu/lalrev/vol55/iss4/2.
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