In response to Golden Oldies (Pacific Maritime Magazine, March 2017), a reader asked how admiralty lawyers find old cases. She imagined law clerks digging through dusty books. That was the old method. With the computer age came the digitization of the law. Old cases are now a click away. Moreover, with the help of a computer, the beginnings of American maritime law can more easily be discovered.
Case Citation Basics
Every published opinion in a case is assigned an official citation. The judge issuing the opinion usually decides whether it should be published, although attorneys can request the publication of an opinion. A published opinion can be cited to another court as precedent; opinions that are not published cannot be cited as precedent.
A case citation has three main parts: 1) the series of books in which the case is published; 2) the volume in the series in which the case can be found; and 3) the page in the volume where the opinion starts. The remainder of the citation identifies the particular court deciding the case and the year in which the case was decided.
Different courts publish their cases in different series of books. “U.S.” in the case citation indicates the case was decided by the US Supreme Court; “F.” “F.2d” and “F.3d” indicate the case was decided by a federal appellate court; “F.Supp.” and “F.Supp.2d” indicate the case was decided by a federal district court. For example, the citation for Guam Industrial Services, Inc. v. Zurich American Insurance Co. et al. (Pacific Maritime Magazine, September 2016) is 787 F.3d 1001 (9th Cir. 2015). It means the opinion can be found in volume 787 of the F.3d series starting at page 1001. It also means the opinion was issued by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in 2015. Very old cases from different court levels are gathered in a series abbreviated “F.Cas.”
Decisions from state courts are identified in a similar way. For example, “Cal.”, “Cal.2d” and “Cal.3d” and Cal.4th” indicate the case was decided by the California Supreme Court.
Some, but not all, admiralty opinions are published in a series called American Maritime Cases, abbreviated in a citation as “AMC”. American Maritime Cases began publishing admiralty cases in 1923. Attorneys submit opinions to the publisher of American Maritime Cases and the editors decide which opinions merit publication. Some opinions published by American Maritime Cases can also be found in another series. Courts recognize cases published in American Maritime Cases as citable precedent even if not published elsewhere.
In “the old days”, the walls of law firms were lined with the books in which the courts’ opinions were published. Once a lawyer had the citation to an opinion, he or she could find it in one of those books. If the lawyer wanted to read a case relied on by the court in that opinion, finding a second book was necessary. And if the lawyer wanted to read a case cited in the second book, finding a third book was necessary, and so on. Stacks of books on a lawyer’s desk were a common sight during the legal research process.
Now lawyers find cases with a computer. Once the citation is entered into a legal research program, the opinion appears on the screen. If another opinion is cited by the court, the lawyer can click on its already highlighted citation, and it instantaneously appears on the screen. A lawyer can search for opinions within certain parameters, such as opinions from a particular court, or on a particular topic, or written by a particular judge. Of course, knowledge of the law is critical to knowing what to ask the computer to search for. The computer search will also yield a list of what courts have relied on a particular opinion and whether the opinion is still “good law” i.e., the opinion has not been reversed or overruled.
The Oldest Opinions
Because the computer can search for opinions by date of issuance, it is easy to find the oldest published American admiralty opinions. The older opinions are commonly shorter than the average opinions of more modern times. The syntax and vocabulary used in them sometimes make them more difficult for modern readers to understand, and often necessitate a second reading.
The oldest published American maritime opinions were issued on January 1, 1779. Indeed, there are 150 reported American maritime cases decided before January 1, 1801.
The Prize Cases
Many of the earliest published American admiralty opinions involved prize law. A prize in the maritime context refers to an enemy’s vessel and cargo captured during an armed conflict, i.e. a prize of war. Some countries granted authority to private parties, known as “privateers”, to capture enemy vessels and cargo. This authority was in the form of a “letter of marque.” Article 1, section 8, clause 11 of the US Constitution allows Congress to issue letters of marque.
Historically, privateers would receive a share of the value of what had been captured. To get their share, the privateers would file an in rem action against the captured vessel. The court would then determine if the captors were entitled to recover, that is, if what was captured was actually an enemy, and what their “prize” would be. The court could clear title to the captured vessel and order the sale of the vessel and cargo aboard.
Rice v Taylor, 20 F. Cas. 668 (1779) is one of the earliest published American admiralty opinions. It involved prize law. Rice and Taylor were two privateers. Taylor successfully captured a British vessel. Rice and his vessel were within a bar off the coast of New Jersey, five to six miles away from Taylor’s vessel at the time of the capture. Two British “ships of force” were between Rice and Taylor’s vessels. Rice observed the confrontation and saw one of the vessels strike the other but could not see which had prevailed. He originally believed Taylor had surrendered to the British vessel. A few days later, he learned Taylor had prevailed in the battle and had brought the captured British vessel safely into port. Rice then sought a share of the prize based on existing law regarding vessels in sight of a capture. Existing law provided that a vessel in sight of the capture of a vessel was presumed to have “terrified the enemy” and had an influence on its surrender. Therefore, its owner was entitled to a share of the prize.
A jury found that although Rice was within sight of the capture, he did not contribute to the capture or scare the British vessel into surrendering. The court explained if the vessel in sight of the confrontation had been armed and prepared for battle or in a condition to join in the battle, it would be appropriate to award a share of the prize to that vessel. However, if the vessel in sight of the confrontation were aground or too far away to play any role in the battle, no award would be made. Rice’s suit was dismissed and he did not pursue an appeal.
Falliage v. The Hope, 8 F. Cas. 975 (1779) is another of the earliest published American admiralty opinions. It too was a prize case. Molineaux and other Frenchmen were the owners of the schooner Hope. The Hope was captured by a British privateer during a voyage from Maryland to France. Falliage and other members of the Hope’s crew became the privateer’s prisoners. They succeeded in recapturing the vessel by causing the British master and crew to become drunk and keeping them in that condition until the vessel was brought into the port of Philadelphia. The owners of the Hope paid salvage charges to Falliage and the other crewmembers and then made a claim for the return of the Hope. Falliage and the other crew members contended their rights should be determined by French law which provided that if a captured vessel were in the enemy’s hands for more than twenty four hours and recaptured, the recaptors were entitled to the whole value of the vessel. The judge held American law applied which required the vessel owner to pay only one half of the vessel’s value to Falliage and the other crewmembers to get the vessel back, instead of salvage charges.
Computerization of the law made legal research far more efficient for lawyers. The beginning of American maritime law is now readily accessible without the need to open centuries-old volumes gathering dust on a bookshelf. And the old cases provide very interesting reading material.
* This article is being republished or posted with permission extended by Pacific Maritime Magazine