California v. Deep Sea Research

Decision Date22 April 1998
Docket Number961400
Citation118 S.Ct. 1464,523 U.S. 491,140 L.Ed.2d 626
PartiesCALIFORNIA and State Lands Commission, Petitioners, v. DEEP SEA RESEARCH, INC., et al
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

The S.S. Brother Jonathan and its cargo sank off the coast of California in 1865. Shortly after the disaster, five insurance companies paid claims for the loss of certain cargo, but it is unclear whether the ship and the remaining cargo were insured. There is no evidence that either the State or the insurance companies have attempted to locate or recover the wreckage. In this action, respondent Deep Sea Research, Inc. (DSR), which has located the wreck, seeks rights to the vessel and cargo under the Federal District Court's in rem admiralty jurisdiction. California moved to dismiss, claiming that it possesses title to the wreck either under the Abandoned Shipwreck Act of 1987(ASA)-which provides that the Federal Government asserts and transfers title to a State of any "abandoned shipwreck'' embedded in the State's submerged lands or on a State's submerged lands and included, or eligible for inclusion, in the National Register-or under Cal. Pub. Res.Code Ann. §6313-which vests title in the State to all abandoned shipwrecks on or in the State's tide and submerged lands-and therefore DSR's in rem action is an action against the State in violation of the Eleventh Amendment. DSR countered that the ASA could not divest the federal courts of the exclusive admiralty and maritime jurisdiction conferred by Article III, §2, of the Constitution and requested a warrant for the arrest of the vessel and its cargo. The District Court concluded that the State failed to demonstrate a "colorable claim'' to the wreck under the ASA; found that the ASA pre-empts §6313; issued a warrant for the vessel's arrest; appointed DSR the vessel's custodian and made it the exclusive salvor; and decided that it would defer adjudication of title until after DSR completed the salvage operation. The Ninth Circuit affirmed, agreeing that the ASA pre-empts §6313; that the Eleventh Amendment does not bar the federal court's jurisdiction over the in rem proceeding as to the application of the ASA; that the State did not prove that the Brother Jonathan is abandoned under the ASA; and that the wreck's uninsured portion should not be treated as abandoned.


1.The Eleventh Amendment does not bar a federal court's jurisdiction over an in rem admiralty action where the res is not within the State's possession. Pp. ____-____.

(a) The federal courts have a unique role in admiralty cases as conferred by Article III, §2, cl. 1, of the Constitution. That jurisdiction encompasses proceedings in rem. The jurisdiction of federal courts is also constrained, however, by the Eleventh Amendment. Early cases appear to have assumed the federal courts' jurisdiction over admiralty in rem actions despite the Eleventh Amendment. Subsequent decisions altered the role of federal courts by explaining that admiralty and maritime jurisdiction is not wholly exempt from the Eleventh Amendment. Ex parte New York, 256 U.S. 490, 41 S.Ct. 588, 65 L.Ed. 1057 (New York I). Thus, this Court held that the federal courts lacked jurisdiction over an in rem action against a tugboat operated by New York State, Ex parte New York, 256 U.S. 503, 41 S.Ct. 592, 65 L.Ed. 1063 (New York II), and that Florida could not invoke the Eleventh Amendment to block the arrest of maritime artifacts in the State's possession where that possession was unlawful, Florida Dept. of State v. Treasure Salvors, Inc., 458 U.S. 670, 102 S.Ct. 3304, 73 L.Ed.2d 1057 (plurality opinion). However, those opinions did not address situations comparable to this case, in which DSR asserts rights to a res not in the State's possession. The action in New York I, although styled as an in rem action, was actually, as the Court explained in that decision, an in personam action against a state official; and the action in New York II was an in rem suit against a vessel that was property of the State, in its possession and employed for governmental use. Assertions in the opinions in Treasure Salvors, which might be read to suggest that a federal court may not undertake in rem adjudication of the State's interest in property without the State's consent, regardless of the status of the res, should not be divorced from the context of that case and reflexively applied to the very different circumstances presented by this case. Also, because Treasure Salvors addressed only the District Court's authority to issue a warrant to arrest artifacts, any references to what the lower courts could have done if adjudicating the artifacts' title do not control the outcome here. Nor does the fact that Treasure Salvors has been cited for the general proposition that federal courts cannot adjudicate a State's claim of title to property prevent a more nuanced application of that decision in the context of the federal courts' in rem admiralty jurisdiction. Pp. ____-____.

(b) In considering whether the Eleventh Amendment applies where the State asserts claim in an admiralty action to a res not in its possession, this Court's decisions involving the Federal Government's sovereign immunity in in rem admiralty actions provide guidance, for the Court has recognized a correlation between sovereign immunity principles applicable to States and the Federal Government. Based on the longstanding precedent that the federal courts' in rem admiralty jurisdiction is barred only where the Federal Government actually possesses the disputed res, e.g., The Davis, 10 Wall. 15, 19 L.Ed. 875, the Eleventh Amendment does not bar federal jurisdiction over the Brother Jonathan, and the District Court may adjudicate DSR's and the State's claims to the shipwreck. Pp. ____-____.

2.Because the lower courts' conclusion that the Brother Jonathan was not abandoned for ASA purposes was influenced by the assumption that the Eleventh Amendment was relevant to the courts' inquiry, the case is remanded for reconsideration of the abandonment issue, with the clarification that the meaning of "abandoned'' under the ASA conforms with its meaning under admiralty law. The District Court's full consideration of the ASA's application on remand might negate the need to address the issue whether the ASA pre-empts §6313, and, thus, this Court declines to undertake that analysis. Pp. ____-____.

102 F.3d 379, affirmed in part, vacated in part, and remanded.

O'CONNOR, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court. STEVENS, J., filed a concurring opinion. KENNEDY, J., filed a concurring opinion, in which GINSBURG and BREYER, JJ., joined.

Joseph C. Rusconi, Oakland CA, for petitioners.

David C. Frederick, Washington, DC, for United States as amicus curiae, by special leave of the Court.

Fletcher C. Alford, San Francisco, CA, for respondent.

Justice O'CONNOR delivered the opinion of the Court.

This action, involving the adjudication of various claims to a historic shipwreck, requires us to address the interaction between the Eleventh Amendment and the in rem admiralty jurisdiction of the federal courts. Respondent Deep Sea Research, Inc. (DSR), located the ship, known as the S.S. Brother Jonathan, in California's territorial waters. When DSR turned to the federal courts for resolution of its claims to the vessel, California contended that the Eleventh Amendment precluded a federal court from considering DSR's claims in light of the State's asserted rights to the Brother Jonathan under federal and state law. We conclude that the Eleventh Amendment does not bar the jurisdiction of a federal court over an in rem admiralty action where the res is not within the State's possession.


The dispute before us arises out of respondent DSR's assertion of rights to both the vessel and cargo of the Brother Jonathan, a 220-foot, wooden-hulled, double side-wheeled steamship that struck a submerged rock in July 1865 during a voyage between San Francisco and Vancouver. It took less than an hour for the Brother Jonathan to sink, and most of the ship's passengers and crew perished. The ship's cargo, also lost in the accident, included a shipment of up to $2 million in gold and a United States Army payroll that some estimates place at $250,000. See Nolte, Shipwreck: Brother Jonathan Discovered, San Francisco Chronicle, Feb. 25, 1994, p. 1, reprinted in App. 127-131. One of few parts of the ship recovered was the wheel, which was later displayed in a saloon in Crescent City, California. R. Phelan, The Gold Chain 242 (1987).

Shortly after the disaster, five insurance companies paid claims totaling $48,490 for the loss of certain cargo. It is unclear whether the remaining cargo and the ship itself were insured. See Wreck of the Steamship Brother Jonathan, New York Times, Aug. 26, 1865, reprinted in App. 140-147. Prior to DSR's location of the vessel, the only recovery of cargo from the shipwreck may have occurred in the 1930's, when a fisherman found 22 pounds of gold bars minted in 1865 and believed to have come from the Brother Jonathan. The fisherman died, however, without revealing the source of his treasure. Nolte, supra, App. 130. There appears to be no evidence that either the State of California or the insurance companies that paid claims have attempted to locate or recover the wreckage.

In 1991, DSR filed an action in the United States District Court for the Northern District of California seeking rights to the wreck of the Brother Jonathan and its cargo under that court's in rem admiralty jurisdiction. California intervened, asserting an interest in the Brother Jonathan based on the Abandoned Shipwreck Act of 1987(ASA), 102 Stat. 432, 43 U.S.C. §§2101-2106, which provides that the Federal Government asserts and transfers title to a State of any "abandoned shipwreck'' that either is embedded in submerged lands of a State or is on a State's submerged lands "and is included...

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