The Steamer St. Lawrence - 66 U.S. 522 (1861)


U.S. Supreme Court

The Steamer St. Lawrence, 66 U.S. 1 Black 522 522 (1861)

The Steamer St. Lawrence

66 U.S. (1 Black) 522

Syllabus

1. The jurisdiction of the federal courts in admiralty and maritime cases is given in general terms by the Constitution, and the extent of it is to be ascertained by a reasonable and just construction of the words used when taken in connection with the whole instrument.

2. No state can enlarge it, nor can an act of Congress or rule of court make it broader than the judicial power may determine to be its true limits.

3. Congress may prescribe the forms and mode of proceeding in the tribunals it establishes to carry this power into execution.

4. Brief history of the legislation of Congress upon this subject.

5. Congress has given to this Court the authority to alter and change the forms and modes of proceeding, and it was under this authority that the 12th Rule of Admiralty Practice was made in 1844, which permitted a proceeding in rem wherever the state law gave a lien.

6. It was by virtue of the same authority that the rule was changed in 1858, and the privilege denied to a suitor of taking out process in rem on the mere ground that state law made his claim a lien.

7. But the abrogation of the rule of 1844 by that of 1858 does not imply that the Court had become convinced in the interval that it wanted jurisdiction in cases to which the former rule applied. The

Page 66 U. S. 523

abrogation meant merely that various considerations made it advisable not to permit that particular form of process to be used by persons who might claim it on the sole ground that the state law gave them a lien where none was given by the maritime code.

8. The courts could not enlarge or diminish their own jurisdiction by a rule of practice, but they have power over their own process and mode of procedure, and it was in the exercise of this latter power that the rule of 1844 was both made and repealed.

9. The change in the rule was prospective in its operation, and does not defeat a suit previously commenced.

10. A lien for supplies is not waived by a materialman who accepts the notes of the owner for the amount due if it was understood by the parties that the lien should continue.

William H. Meyer and Edwin R. Wilcox filed their libel in the district court against the steamer St. Lawrence, her engine, tackle, apparel &c., for supplies to the value of $2,500, payment of which had been demanded and refused. The libellants averred that the St. Lawrence had been in the port of New York ever since the supplies were furnished, and they had a lien on her by the law of the state. Rev.St., Title viii, Ch. 8. Lewis H. Meyer and Edward Stucken made claim as owners, and answered to the libel that the supplies were furnished on the credit of John Graham, and not of the vessel; that the libellants settled and accounted for them with Graham, took his notes for the amount agreed on, and discharged the vessel; that the respondents are bona fide purchasers of the vessel, in good faith, without notice of the libellants' claim.

The evidence taken in the cause showed that the supplies were furnished, the amount and value being ascertained to the satisfaction of the claimants' proctor. It was proved also that John Graham was the owner of the vessel at the time, and that he gave his notes for the amount of the libellants' claim, but it was expressly stipulated between him and the libellants that their lien against the vessel should not be discharged or released unless the notes were paid. The notes were afterwards

Page 66 U. S. 524

surrendered. The claimants purchased the vessel after all these transactions, and there is no proof that they had any notice of the libellants' claim against her.

The district court decreed in favor of the libellants, the decree was affirmed by the circuit court, and the claimants appealed.

Page 66 U. S. 525



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