Evolution and Unification of the Federal Admiralty Rules and Federal Rules of Civil Procedure

Article by Harold K. Watson and Ifigeneia Xanthopoulou

More than half a century has passed since the 1966 unification of the Admiralty Rules and the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure (FRCP). In the mid-sixties, some leading admiralty scholars envisioned a “New Era of procedure” after unification. Others argued that unification would not revolutionize admiralty practice and procedure. Rather, it would be the natural merger of two largely related sets of procedural rules, which would not alter much from a practical standpoint. In retrospect, unification was a bit of both--a novel approach that was a long time coming.

Admiralty law--born in the ancient maritime nations of the Mediterranean coasts--became entrenched into English law. The Crown created English admiralty courts around 1350 with the mandate to specialize in maritime disputes. From 1615, in light of the success of admiralty courts in England, the Crown established an analogous system in England's North American colonies. The practice, procedure, and jurisdiction of the colonial vice-admiralty courts were similar to their English sister courts. These courts heard a host of traditional maritime cases, including cargo claims, prize and piracy cases, marine insurance claims, seamen's wage disputes, salvage cases, as well as maritime contract and charterparty disputes.

The American Revolution marked the termination of the colonial vice-admiralty courts. However, their legacy survives in modern federal practice because it served as the foundation for Article III, Section 2 of the United States Constitution, which confers judicial power to the United States courts to hear “all Cases of admiralty and maritime Jurisdiction.” Pursuant to this constitutional mandate, in enacting the 1789 Judiciary Act, Congress conferred admiralty and maritime jurisdiction on the federal district courts, “saving to suitors, in all cases, the right of a common law remedy.”

Since its debut in the vice-admiralty courts, admiralty practice and procedure flourished alongside federal civil procedure without losing its unique characteristics, which are still present in the unified set of the civil procedure rules. For decades, the two procedural systems were engaging in a “give and take” process with each other, which resulted in extensive congruence and, ultimately, consolidation.

About the Authors

Harold K. Watson: Partner, Chaffe McCall, L.L.P.; President, Maritime Law Association of the United States; Titulary Member, Comité Maritime International; Planning Committee, Tulane Admiralty Law Institute; L.L.M. 1977, Yale University; J.D. 1974, Louisiana State University Law School.; B.A., 1971, Louisiana State University.

Ifigeneia Xanthopoulou: Associate, Chaffe McCall, L.L.P.; LL.B., Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, 2014; LL.M. in Commercial Law, University of Cambridge, 2015; LL.M. in Admiralty, Tulane University Law School, 2016; Fellow, Tulane Maritime Law Center (2015-16).


92 Tul. L. Rev. 1123 (2018)