The court's jurisdiction



My apologies if this has already been posted. I'm new here - I looked around a bit and didn't see anything. I thought I saw some questions as to how the court was able to exercise jurisdiction over the wrecksite. I'm not an attorney, but I am a law student. I hope this helps.

The District Court is exercising constructive in rem jurisdiction over the wrecksite. In rem jurisdiction allows a court to adjudicate the rights of all claimants to a specific piece of property. They are exercising this jurisdiction based on items that have been salvaged from the wreck and that are now within the Court's judicial district. So, why are they exercising CONSTRUCTIVE in rem jurisdiction? Because, as the Court points out, it would be impossible to bring the entire shipwreck within its judicial district. The Court first exercised this constructive in rem jurisdiction over the wreck in 1992 - this was reaffirmed on August 27, 1993 when R.M.S. Titanic, Inc. (hereafter referred to as RMST) presented a wine decanter, taken from the wrecksite, to the Court. Because portions of the in rem Defendant (in this case, the Titanic itself) would be within the judicial district during the action (the hearing), the Court, pursuant to Admiralty Rule C(2) could exercise jurisdiction. The Court has in rem jurisdiction over the actual artifacts within its judicial district and CONSTRUCTIVE in rem jurisdiction over the shipwreck (which, of course, is outside of the Court's judicial district). Haver, who is a party opposing RMST in this specific case, claims that the Court only has jurisdiction over the wine decanter. The Court explains, however, that they have in personam jurisdiction (which means they have jurisdiction over "the person" - in this case, RMST) and that, if they wanted to, they could order RMST to bring all of the artifacts within the Court's judicial district.
So what about the rights of any potential claimants? Are they entitled to know about the in rem action? Yes. What are called "arrest papers" were served on the portions (the res) of the in rem Defendant ("portions" in this case is the wine decanter (the res) - in rem Defendant in this case is the Titanic itself) that were within the Court's judicial district. Arrest papers (not to be confused with arrest warrant) were also served on RMST because they were the substitute custodian of the wreck. Pursuant to Supplemental Admiralty Rule C(4) and at the direction of the District Court, it was required that notice of the arrest be published in various newspapers. This is adequate to satisfy the requirement that the world be notified of the in rem proceeding. The effect of this is that the world knew that rights to the wreck were being litigated in this particular Court (meaning the District Court in Virginia). (Only one party filed a claim after publication - the Liverpool and London Steamship Protection and Indemnity Association. They settled with RMST.)

What about the fact that the wreck lies in international waters? How can the Court exercise jurisdiction over something that is outside the boundaries of the United States? Don't other countries have rights regarding the wreck? The Court talks about the jus gentium, which is basically the law of nations. It's the common law of maritime nations. Natural reason has established this law and all nations use it.

Here's what the Federal Appellate Court (which is one of the 13 Federal Appellate Courts - the next stop would be the U.S. Supreme Court) had to say about the District Courts exercise of jurisdiction when Haver appealed the case. (Haver claimed that although the District Court in Virginia may have jurisdiction over the wine decanter and any other artifacts in their judicial district, they did not have jurisdiction over the wreck itself because it lay in international waters.) They affirmed this part of the District Court's opinion ("this part" meaning the jurisdiction issue). but for different reasons. The Appellate Court says that three principals must be addressed before they can ". . . address the existence and scope of authority of a United States court over the Titanic. 1) the nature and scope of admiralty jurisdiction, 2) the applicability of salvage law as part of the common law of maritime nations (this would be the jus gentium referred to above) and 3) the reach of an admiralty court's in rem jurisdiction. The Appellate Court then talks about how Courts are given this power in Article III of the Constitution and how it was not brought about by any express or implied legislative action but that it ("it" being the body of admiralty law referred to in Article III) has been applied for 3,000 years (yes, three thousand years - not a typo!) Again, this is referring to the jus gentium - the law of nations. The Appellate Court explains that the District Court cannot exercise in rem jurisdiction - in the traditional sense - over something lying in international waters (the reason for this is that in rem jurisdiction is dependent on the presence of the res - again, in this case it would be the wine decanter) in the Court's judicial district. The Appellate Court understands that the District Court acknowledged this and that it (meaning the District Court) relied on constructive in rem jurisdiction for its authority. The Appellate Court said that, of course, jurisdiction of this type could not be exclusive as against the whole world. The Appellate Court then goes on to acknowledge this constructive in rem jurisdiction (but they seem to have a problem with the wording - in the opinion, they say "to use the District Court's term"). As long as the salvage operations continue, they will have this jurisdiction. They (meaning the Appellate Court) explain that, by having this constructive in rem jurisdiction, it is not to be understood that the District Court has sovereignty over the wreck. They have an "imperfect" or "inchoate" jurisdiction over the wreck. It means that they share sovereignty with other nations who apply the same jus gentium. It means that internationally recognized rights may be declared but not finally enforced. The final enforcement would only come when property (such as an artifact) is brought before the District Court in the United States or before a court in admirality of another nation. To take away the District Court's power entirely (or any nations courts) with respect to this jurisdiction would leave the international waters in a state of lawlessness - which has never happened in recorded history.

This is just the tip of the iceberg (no pun intended) regarding the issues of jurisdiction in all three cases involving the Titanic (particularly the Appellate Court's opinion). I've tried to simplify it the best I can. Please believe me when I tell you that you'd probably rather have your eyes poked out with a fork than have me go into any more detail about jurisdiction issues. Last year in law school when we covered this, we were told to eat our Wheaties on the days that we would be covering it and our professor told us that these issues even gave her a headache.