Maritime Law and the Supreme Court

One of the panelists at the recently concluded seminar of the Greater New Orleans Barge Fleeting Association spoke about two cases the Supreme Court announced it would take up that could significantly affect maritime law. One case, GNOBFA partner James Mercante said, is the question of whether federal admiralty law preempts state tort claims related to shipboard injuries and accidents. Another case is the question of whether choice-of-law clauses in maritime contracts can be rendered unenforceable where enforcement would violate a strong public policy of the state whose law is displaced.

A major component of maritime law is the Law of the Sea, or international admiralty laws. This body of conventions, regulations and treaties regulates the movement of ships on international waters and establishes administrative, technical and social controls over seaborne commerce. It also includes the right of recognition (warships can request any vessel to identify itself) and the right of hot pursuit. International conventions and more specific customary law are extending the reach of these controls to inland waters and territorial seas, and over the rights and responsibilities of states.

For example, a dispute between adherents of Mare clausum, championed by the Englishman Selder, and those of Mare liberum, forcefully promoted by the Dutchman Grotius, ended in favor of the latter. More recently, the 1958 Geneva Convention and the more recent Montego Bay Convention elevated ship registration from domestic to international law. This has opened the way for countries to impose restrictions on cargo, technical and professional qualifications of crew members, and environmental protection on their own waters.

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