The Role of Federal Courts in Admiralty: the Challenges Facing the Admiralty Judges of the Lower District Courts

In 1993, the inaugural Nicholas J. Healy Lecture on Admiralty Law, given by the late Judge John R. Brown at New York University's School of Law, was published under the title Admiralty Judges: Flotsam on the Sea of Admiralty Law? Judge Brown lamented the decline in the role of admiralty judges to little more than “conforming admiralty law to Congressional enactments and filling in gaps in maritime law only when authorized by Congress.” This Article is a respectful rebuttal to Judge Brown's position. The first Part of this Article reviews the traditional role of admiralty judges. The second Part reviews the role of Congress in the development of admiralty law in the United States and the constitutional limitations on legislation affecting this area of the law. The third Part analyzes the Supreme Court's decisions in Mobil Oil Corp. v. Higginbotham and Miles v. Apex Marine Corp., decisions identified by Judge Brown as marking the beginnings of the “demise” of the role of admiralty judges. The analysis indicates that, in contrast, the rationale of those decisions reflects the role the Constitution sets forth for admiralty judges as the Supreme Court has defined it for many years. The final Part of the Article surveys the many complex issues facing admiralty judges in the federal courts today. This Article concludes that although the role of admiralty judges has changed, as have the issues to be addressed, the demise of the role of the admiralty judge is greatly exaggerated.