Florida Department of State v. Treasure Salvors, Inc.

PETITIONER: Florida Department of State
RESPONDENT: Treasure Salvors, Inc.
LOCATION: Former land of Valley Forge General Hospital

DOCKET NO.: 80-1348
DECIDED BY: Burger Court (1981-1986)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit

CITATION: 458 US 670 (1982)
ARGUED: Jan 20, 1982
DECIDED: Jul 01, 1982

David Paul Horan - Argued the cause for the respondent
Susan Gamble Smathers - Argued the cause pro hac vice for the petitioner

Facts of the case

Immediately after Treasure Salvors, Inc. ("Treasure") located a 17th-century Spanish wreck of its coast, Florida claimed ownership of the remains. Treasure contracted with the Florida Division of Archives ("Archives") to salvage the wreck in exchange for 75% of the recovered artifacts' appraised value. Meanwhile, in the unrelated proceedings of United States v. Florida, the United States won a judgment granting it ownership of the lands, minerals, and other natural resources in the area of the Spanish wreck's discovery. Upon learning of this ruling, Treasure sought a declaration of title to the wreck. Following a second favorable appellate decision, Treasure sought and received a warrant to seize all artifacts from the Archives. Florida challenged the warrant and its issuing district court's jurisdiction, but lost on both counts. On appeal from an unfavorable appellate ruling, the Supreme Court granted Florida certiorari.


Does a district court's issuance of a property seizure warrant against a state violate the Eleventh Amendment?

Media for Florida Department of State v. Treasure Salvors, Inc.

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - January 20, 1982 in Florida Department of State v. Treasure Salvors, Inc.

Warren E. Burger:

We will arguments next in Florida against Treasure Salvors.

Mrs. Smathers, I think you may proceed when you're ready.

Susan Gamble Smathers:

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

It is respectfully submitted that the central issue involved in this petition is whether the federal courts below exceeded the bounds of their constitutional authority attesting the validity of an apparently sufficient contract which was the basis for the state's assertion of sovereign immunity under the Eleventh Amendment.

We submit that the court's authority is limited to determining whether the state has an genuine interest in the subject matter of a dispute, and that once the state's interest is demonstrated, even though there may be defenses that may be asserted in another forum, that the inquiry of the federal court should cease.

This Court does not sit today to decide the merits of the parties' contractual dispute; rather, the people of the State of Florida deserve to have a dispute over the ownership of historic artifacts, on display in many instances in their state museum, decided in a state court which is fully equipped to hear the issue and which, it must be assumed, can reach a decision which meets the ends of justice.

Briefly, the facts are in 1622 a flotilla of 28 Spanish ships was proceeding through the Florida straits and encountered a hurricane.

Eight of the ships were lost.

One of the ships, which was not subsequently recovered by the Spaniards, was the Nuestra Senora de Atocha.

She went down with a precious metal cargo as well as a vast amount of artifacts from the 17th century which today may be worth as much as $400 million.

Certainly the archaeological significance of those artifacts could have no price tag put on them.

In 1971 under the authority of Florida's antiquities legislation the State of Florida Department of State entered into a contract with Respondents to search for and later recover the remains of the Atocha.

Under the contract the state was to retain 25 percent of the artifacts recovered, and the Respondents were to be paid in kind for their services consisting of 75 percent of the artifacts.

Then in March 1975 United States v. Florida was handed down which re established Florida's boundaries for purposes of the Submerged Lands Act.

It was at this point that Respondents filed an in rem complaint in admiralty in the Southern District of Florida for possession and confirmation of title to the remains of the Atocha.

What is important for this Court to understand was that Respondents' in rem complaint sought possession and title to the unidentified remains of a vessel which were scattered below on the ocean floor.

The artifacts in dispute in today's action were not in dispute in that case.

Florida was not a party to that proceeding.

Why was Florida not a party to it?

Susan Gamble Smathers:

Well, Your Honor, at that time--

There was a conscious decision not to intervene on the part of the state.

Susan Gamble Smathers:

--That's right.

It was a policy decision.

Certainly the state recognized that their authority to continue exercising jurisdiction in those waters was drawn seriously in question.

It was convenient to get the United States in.

Susan Gamble Smathers:


The United States did intervene in that proceeding and claimed ownership of the wreck under the Federal Antiquities Act and the Abandoned Properties Act.

There had never before this time been any dispute between the United States and Florida as to who could exercise ownership or control of these artifacts.

The United States intervened, as I said, and claimed ownership under the Antiquities Act and the Abandoned Properties Act.

Did the United States intervene at the behest of the State of Florida?