Federal and State Preemption Regarding Vessel Construction and Operation

The usurpation of one body of law by another is not new to admiralty and maritime law. This battle was waged in England in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries between the common law and admiralty courts, and was not finally settled until well into the present millennium with enactment by Parliament of the Administration of Justice Act, 1970. In the latter half of the twentieth century, the United States experienced a similar phenomenon. Instead of a battle between the common-law and admiralty courts over areas of jurisdiction, however, the battle is between what has become to be known as the environmental law and the federal maritime law, both statutory and decisional. This Article attempts to outline the nature of this dispute between state environmental enactments and federal statues designed to regulate maritime commerce. The apparent disregard by the courts to attribute any special status to the statutory body of federal maritime law and its connection to the constitutional recognition of the admiralty and maritime law as body of federal substantive law is disturbing. In fact, some of the cases discussed herein do not even address the application of the maritime or admiralty law to these disputes. This Article looks at the key constitutional decisions in the area of oil pollution that have arisen out of attempts to displace the authority of the federal government in the regulation of certain aspects of maritime commerce. The Article also appeals for more balanced approach, one which recognizes the true international nature of the admiralty and maritime law, which remains just as true today as it was at the time of the adoption of the United States Constitution in 1789.