California v. Deep Sea Research, Inc.

PETITIONER: California
RESPONDENT: Deep Sea Research, Inc.
LOCATION: United States Department of State

DOCKET NO.: 96-1400
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit

CITATION: 523 US 491 (1998)
ARGUED: Dec 01, 1997
DECIDED: Apr 22, 1998

David C. Frederick - On behalf of the United States, as the respondent supporting the petitioners in part
Fletcher C. Alford - Argued the cause for the respondents
Joseph C. Rusconi - Argued the cause for the petitioners

Facts of the case

After several expeditions, Deep Sea Research, Inc. (DSR) located the wreck of the S.S. Brother Jonathan and its cargo which sank off the California coast in 1865. When DSR sought rights to the wreck and her cargo, under Article III, Section 2, federal admiralty jurisdiction, California challenged DSR claiming that it had title to the wreck under the Abandoned Shipwreck Act of 1987 (ASA). The ASA requires the federal government to transfer title over "abandoned shipwrecks" to the states in whose submerged lands the wrecks are found. California also noted that under Section 6313 of its own public code, title to all abandoned shipwrecks found off its coast vests in the state. In light of its claims to the Brother Jonathan, California claimed that DSR's federal title action violated its rights under the Eleventh Amendment, even though it lacked possession of the wreck.


Does the Eleventh Amendment, limiting federal jurisdiction over maritime matters, bar a federal court's jurisdiction over an admiralty property claim where the property itself is not within the State's possession?

Media for California v. Deep Sea Research, Inc.

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - December 01, 1997 in California v. Deep Sea Research, Inc.

William H. Rehnquist:

We'll hear argument now in Number 96-1400, California and State Lands Commission v. the Deep Sea Research, Inc.--

Mr. Rusconi.

Joseph C. Rusconi:

Mr. Chief Justice, and may it please the Court:

The action below was one in rem by a private party to try title as against all the world and for exclusive salvage rights to a vessel lying upon the sovereign submerged lands of the State of California.

In this situation, California claims title and rights to salvage over that same vessel, and the Eleventh Amendment prevents the adjudication of California's interests in this case without its consent.

Under this Court's Eleventh Amendment jurisprudence, the guiding principle in these cases is the effect of the relief requested on the State.

This conclusion is not dependent upon formalisms or upon the manipulation of captions or pleadings.

Had this suit been in personam against the State under the same circumstances there is no doubt that the suit would have been barred by the Eleventh Amendment, and this result cannot be changed by the substitution of the vessel as defendant for the State of California.

Antonin Scalia:

Well, there's really no such thing as an in rem action, then.

Joseph C. Rusconi:

No, that's--

Antonin Scalia:

Well, I mean, you cannot possibly adjudicate the rights to a particular piece of property.

You always have at least 50 claimants--

Joseph C. Rusconi:

--Justice Scalia--

Antonin Scalia:

--who can come in and say, no, it's really mine, and this adjudication was for naught.

Joseph C. Rusconi:

--Justice Scalia, all we're asking in this case is that the State be dismissed.

Now, they can move forward in this with an in rem judgment against the rest of the world.

David H. Souter:

Then it's not an in rem judgment.

The whole point, historically, of an in rem judgment in these admiralty actions is that it binds the world, and it seems to me that the implication of what you're saying here is, a State is always part of the world and, therefore, in any admiralty in rem action a State could come forward and say, got to dismiss it, Eleventh Amendment, can't bind me.

Joseph C. Rusconi:

Justice Souter, I believe that is what we are saying.

However, the practical effect of that, States are not going to run around willy nilly and make these type of claims.

David H. Souter:

And isn't the reason that they're not... isn't the reason that you're not going to file this kind of an objection on, let's say, an East Coast salvage case is that there is no colorable basis, in your mind or anybody else's, for your doing so, for your having a claim that might be cut off and therefore in fact adjudicated by the in rem action?

Joseph C. Rusconi:

That will be the practical effect, yes.

David H. Souter:

All right.

Then what would be wrong with a rule, and maybe it would be a softer rule than the circuit applied here, which says you have at least got to come forward and make a sufficient showing that you are within the class of those whose interests might, in fact, be adjudicated here?

You've done that, in fact, in part by what you've done so far.

After all, in this case the original in rem process describes the location, so you said, look, we're within the class of those geographically that might be affected, and what would be wrong with carrying that one step further and simply saying, all right, make an equally colorable showing that you're also within the class as defined by other criteria, abandonment, embeddedness, historic register?

It doesn't mean... this rule would not mean that you have ultimately to prove your entitlement, but it would mean that you've got to make a showing that there is a practical reason for stopping this in rem proceeding, and the reason, the justification for that is to avoid the absurd situation in which, simply by claiming that you're part of the world, you could defeat any in rem proceeding.

What would be wrong with that rule?

Joseph C. Rusconi:

Justice Souter, the problem with that rule is that by inquiring into the location, inquiring into the issues that you mentioned, you're adjudicating the merits of the claim.

David H. Souter:

No, I'm simply... my suggestion was that you've at least got to come forward with a basis for saying, yes, there is a reasonable basis for saying that State interests are involved here, as distinct from the case that would occur if the wreck were beyond the 3-mile limit, or the wreck were in the Gulf of Mexico, or in Europe.