Annotate this Case
74 U.S. 624 (1868)
U.S. Supreme Court
The Belfast, 74 U.S. 7 Wall. 624 624 (1868)
74 U.S. (7 Wall.) 624
1. In all cases where a maritime lien arises, the original jurisdiction to enforce it by a proceeding in rem is exclusive in the district courts of the United States, as provided by the ninth section of the Judiciary Act of 1789.
2. State legislatures have no authority to create maritime liens, nor can they confer jurisdiction upon a state court to enforce such a lien by a suit or proceeding in rem, as practiced in admiralty courts,
3. Upon an ordinary contract of affreightment, the lien of the shipper is a maritime lien, and a proceeding in rem to enforce it is within the exclusive
original cognizance of the district courts of the United States, albeit the contract be for transportation between ports and places within the same state and all the parties be citizens of the same state, provided only that such contract be for transportation upon navigable waters to which the general jurisdiction of the admiralty extends.
4. The "saving," in the ninth section of the Judiciary Act, "to suitors, in all cases, of the right of a common law remedy, where the common law is competent to give it" does not authorize a proceeding in rem to enforce a maritime lien in a common law court, whether state or federal. Common law remedies are not applicable to enforce such a lien, but are suits in personam, though such suits, under special statutes, may be commenced by attachment of the property of the debtor. Proceedings in a suit at common law on a contract of affreightment are the same as in suits on contracts not regarded as maritime, wholly irrespective of the fact that the injured party might have sought redress in the admiralty. The judgment in such a case is not against the vessel as the offending thing, but against the parties who have violated their contract, and can only affect the vessel so far as the defendants may have property therein.
5. These principles applied to the provision of the statute of 7th October, 1864, of the State of Alabama, under which contracts of affreightment are authorized to be enforced in rem through courts of the state by proceedings the same in form as those used in courts of admiralty of the United States, and the statute held unconstitutional and void.
The case was thus:
The Constitution ordains that the judicial power of the United States shall extend "to all cases of admiralty and maritime jurisdiction." And the ninth section of the Judiciary Act of 1789 provides that the district courts of the United States
"Shall have exclusive original cognizance of all civil causes of admiralty and maritime jurisdiction, . . . saving to suitors in all cases the right of a common law remedy, where the common law is competent to give it."
In this state of federal law, fundamental and statutory, the State of Alabama, by enactments, entitled "PROCEEDINGS IN ADMIRALTY," [Footnote 1] provided that there should be a lien on all vessels for work and materials done or furnished and for all debts contracted by the master, owner or consignee
and for the wages of the officers, crew &c., in preference to other debts due from the owners thereof. By the terms of the code, the lien is to be asserted by filing a complaint in any county in which the vessel may be found, stating the amount and nature of the claim and praying a seizure of the vessel. Thereupon the clerk is to issue a writ commanding the sheriff to seize the vessel, her tackle, apparel and furniture. At any time before judgment, the master, owner or other persons may release the vessel by entering into bond in double the amount of the claim stipulating to pay the amount of the judgment. Any number of persons may unite in the same complaint, and if more than one complaint be filed, the court must consolidate them and render but one judgment against the vessel, which is to be considered several as to each complainant. If a stipulation be entered into, the stipulators are defendants. If none, the court must render a judgment ex parte condemning the boat, tackle &c., to be sold in satisfaction of the claim, and the affidavit of complainant is made presumptive evidence of the justice of the demand.
Finally, the code provides that,
"unless where otherwise provided in this chapter, the proceedings to enforce the lien shall be the same as in the courts of admiralty of the United States, but either party may have any question of fact decided by a jury, upon an issue made up under direction of the court."
By the act of 7th October, 1864, "to amend the admiralty laws of the state," these provisions are extended to the contract of affreightment.
Under this statute, Boone & Co. filed their libel, March 30, 1866, in the City Court of Mobile, claiming $5,800 for the loss of certain bales of cotton shipped to them from Vienna, in the State of Alabama, to Mobile, in the same state, and prayed "process in admiralty" for the seizure of the steamboat Belfast.
In the same court a libel was also filed by J. & S. Steers, claiming compensation for other bales, shipped by them from Columbus, Mississippi, to Mobile, in Alabama, already mentioned. And a libel by Watson & Co. claiming it for cotton shipped by them, from and to the same points.
All the navigation which was the subject of the case was upon the Tombigbee River, navigable water of the United States.
Under these several libels, the sheriff, by virtue of writs of seizure, took the steamer into possession and posted his monitions, and the causes under the statute were consolidated and heard together. The answer, applicable to the three cases alike, set forth that the steamer was duly enrolled and licensed in pursuance of laws of the United States, and that on the 15th January, 1866, she was regularly cleared at Mobile, Alabama, for Columbus, Mississippi, and that on her downward trip, the cotton claimed was lost, and therefore that the city court had no jurisdiction.
A decree was rendered on 28 July for the three libellants. Appeal was taken to the Supreme Court of Alabama, where one assignment of errors was: "That the city court erred in overruling the protest to the jurisdiction." The decree of the city court was, however, affirmed by the supreme court, and deciding, as that court thus did, in favor of the validity of a statute of a state drawn in question on the ground of its being repugnant to the laws of the United States, the case was brought here under the twenty-fifth section of the Judiciary Act.
Not much contesting the point that if the court had no jurisdiction in the two cases where the carriage was not wholly within one state no agreement below could authorize what it did about these two (jurisdiction being of course to be conferred by the law alone), the matter of debate was reduced here chiefly to the first case -- that, namely, of Boone & Co. -- where the whole carriage was within the State of Alabama and to the question of constitutional law arising upon it, to-wit: whether the contract, made as it was for the transportation of goods from one place to another both in the same state and without the goods being carried in transitu into or through any other state or foreign dominion, was a contract which could be enforced by a proceeding in admiralty in the federal courts alone.
If the state court had no jurisdiction in that case, a fortiori it could have none in the two others.