61 U.S. 296 (1858), Jackson v. The Magnolia

Citation:61 U.S. 296, 15 L.Ed. 909
Case Date:April 13, 1858
Court:United States Supreme Court

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61 U.S. 296 (1858)

15 L.Ed. 909




United States Supreme Court.

April 13, 1858


THIS was an appeal from the District Court of the United States for the middle district of Alabama.

The case came up on an appeal from the judgment of the District Court, dismissing the libel for want of jurisdiction, after the following agreement had been filed:

Be it remembered, that on the trial of this cause, which was a libel in admiralty, it was agreed that the question of jurisdiction should be submitted to the court on the facts hereinafter stated, which were admitted to be true; and if the court should be of the opinion that the court had jurisdiction of the cause, then the cause should be submitted to a jury for trial. But if the court should be of opinion that it was without jurisdiction, the libel would be dismissed, and in the event an appeal was taken to the Supreme Court of the United States, and the judgment of that court should reverse the judgment of this court, then the cause should be remanded to this court for trial.

The court agreed so to try the question of jurisdiction on the facts, which are admitted to be as follows: The steamboat Wetumpka was a vessel engaged in navigation and commerce

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between the port of New Orleans, in Louisiana, and the port of Montgomery, in Alabama, and was regularly licensed and enrolled as a coasting vessel, and was of more than thirty tons burden. The steamboat Magnolia was a boat regularly licensed and enrolled for the coasting trade, but was built for a packet boat to be employed between Mobile, Alabama, and Montgomery, Alabama. She was built in the Western country, and brought round to this State, and has ever since been engaged in running between Mobile and Montgomery, and has never been engaged in any other trade.

The collision, which is the subject of the libel against the Magnolia, took place between her and the Wetumpka, on the Alabama river, about two hundred miles above tide-water. The Magnolia is a boat of over thirty tons burden. The foregoing are the facts in which the question of jurisdiction is submitted to the court, together with the libel and claim, and answer thereto.

WATTS & DARGAN, For the Magnolia and Claimants.

HENRY C. SEMPLE, For the Libellants.


The case was argued at the preceding term of this court upon printed arguments by Mr. Francis Lee Smith for the appellants, and Mr. Dargan for the appellees; also orally by Mr. Phillips for the appellees.

The difficulty of abbreviating arguments made by counsel upon constitutional points, and the circumstance that both sides of the question of jurisdiction are fully presented in the opinion of the court and in the dissenting opinions of Mr. Justice DANIEL and Mr. Justice CAMPBELL, are reasons why the Reporter omits sketches of the arguments of counsel. It will be perceived, also, that Mr. Justice McLEAN delivered a separate opinion, although concurring in the judgment of the court.

Mr. Justice GRIER delivered the opinion of the court.

The only question presented for our consideration on this appeal is, whether the court below had jurisdiction.

The libel purports to be in a cause of collision, civil and maritime. It alleges that the steamboat Wetumpka, a vessel of three hundred tons burden, was on a voyage from New Orleans to the city of Montgomery, in Alabama; that while ascending the Alabama river, she was run into and sunk by the steamboat Magnolia, which was descending the same.

The answer of the respondents, among other things, alleges 'that the collision took place far above tide-water, on the

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Alabama river, in the county of Wilcox, in the State of Alabama, and therefore not within the jurisdiction of the District Court sitting in admiralty.'

This plea was sustained by the court, and the libel dismissed. The record does not disclose the reasons on which this judgment was based. It is presumed, therefore, to be founded on the facts stated in the plea, viz:

1. That the collision was within the body of a county.

2. That it was above tide-water.

1. The Alabama river flows through the State of Alabama. It is a great public river, navigable from the sea for many miles above the ebb and flow of the tide. Vessels licensed for the coasting trade, and those engaged in foreign commerce, pass on its waters to ports of entry within the State. It is not, like the Mississippi, a boundary between coterminous States. Neither is it, like the Penobscot, (see Veazie v. Moore, 14 How., 568,) made subservient to the internal trade of the State by artificial means and dams constructed at its mouth, rendering it inaccessible to sea-going vessels. It differs from the Hudson, which rises in and passes through the State of New York, in the fact that it is navigable for ships and vessels of the largest class far above where its waters are affected by the tide.

Before the adoption of the present Constitution, each State, in the exercise of its sovereign power, had its own court of admiralty, having jurisdiction over the harbors, creeks, inlets, and public navigable waters, connected with the sea. This jurisdiction was exercised not only over rivers, creeks, and inlets, which were boundaries to or passed through other States, but also where they were wholly within the State. Such a distinction was unknown, nor (as it appears from the decision of this court in the case of Waring v. Clark, 5 How., 441) had these courts been driven from the exercise of jurisdiction over torts committed on navigable water within the body of a county, by the jealousy of the common-law courts.

When, therefore, the exercise, of admiralty and maritime jurisdiction over its public rivers, ports, and havens, was surrendered by each State to the Government of the United States, without an exception as to subjects or places, this court cannot interpolate one into the Constitution, or introduce an arbitrary distinction which has no foundation in reason or precedent.

The objection to jurisdiction stated in the plea, 'that the collision was within the county of Wilcox, in the State of Alabama,' can therefore have no greater force or effect from the fact alleged in the argument, that the Alabama river, so far as it is navigable, is wholly within the boundary of the State.

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It amounts only to a renewal of the old contest between courts of common law and courts of admiralty, as to their jurisdiction within the body of a county. This question has been finally adjudicated in this court, and the argument exhausted, in the case of Waring v. Clark. After an experience of ten years, we have not been called on by the bar to review its principles as founded in error, nor have we heard of any complaints by the people of wrongs suffered on account of its supposed infringement of the right of trial by jury. So far, therefore, as the solution of the question now before us is affected by the fact that the tort was committed within the body of a county, it must be considered as finally settled by the decision in that case.

2. The second ground of objection to the jurisdiction of the court is founded on the fact, that though the collision complained of occurred in a great navigable river, it was on a part of that river not affected by the flux and reflux of the tide, but 'far above it.'

This objection, also, is one which has heretofore been considered and decided by this court, after full argument and much deliberation. In the case of the Genesee Chief, (12 How., 444,) we have decided, that though in England the flux and reflux of the tide was a sound and reasonable test of a navigable river, because on that island tide-water and navigable water were synonymous terms, yet that 'there is certainly nothing in the ebb and flow of the tide that makes the waters peculiarly suitable for admiralty jurisdiction, nor anything in the absence of a tide that renders it unfit. If it is a public navigable water on which commerce is carried on between different States or nations, the reason for the jurisdiction is precisely the same. And if a distinction is made on that account, it is merely arbitrary, without any foundation in reason--and, indeed, contrary to it.' The case of the Thomas Jefferson (10 Wheaton) and others, which had hastily adopted this arbitrary and (in this country) false test of navigable waters, were necessarily overruled.

Since the decision of these cases, the several district courts have taken jurisdiction of cases of collision on the great public navigable rivers. Some of these cases have been brought to this court by appeal, and in no instance has any objection been taken, either by the counsel or the court, to the jurisdiction, because the collision was within the body of a county, or above the tide. (See Fritz v. Bull, 12 How., 466; Walsh v. Rogers, 13 How., 283; The Steamboat New World, 16 How., 469; Ure v. Kauffman, 19 How., 56; New York and Virginia S. B. Co. v. Calderwood, 19 How., 245.)

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In our opinion, therefore, neither of the facts alleged in the answer, nor both of them taken together, will constitute a sufficient exception to the jurisdiction of the District Court.

It is due however, to the learned counsel who has presented the argument for respondent in this case, to say, that he has not attempted to impugn the decision of this court in the case of Waring v. Clark, nor to question the sufficiency of the reasons given in the case of the Genesee Chief for overruling the case of the Thomas Jefferson; but he contends that the case of...

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