The Greatest Supreme Court Opinion?
This week in my Admiralty class I taught my favorite case–Moragne v. States Marine Lines, Inc., 398 U.S. 375 (1970). This unanimous opinion, written by Justice John Marshall Harlan, held that a wrongful death action existed in general maritime law. Moragne overruled The Harrisburg, an 1886 case that followed the common law and said that there was no wrongful death remedy in admiralty. Many scholars believe that this is the best Supreme Court opinion, if by best you mean”most professional.”
Among the reasons this is worth reading (even if you don’t care about admiralty):
1. Moragne goes into the history of wrongful death and explains why the common law did not provide a remedy. The answer is that the “felony-merger” doctrine in England held that all property owned by a convicted murderer went to the Crown. Thus, there could be no recovery by a private party. Even though no such doctrine existed here, our courts blindly adopted the English rule.
2. The Court grounds its decision to overrule its precedent by doing an exhaustive review of the erosion of the “no wrongful death” rule, by looking at state statutes, Acts of Congress, international law, and academic criticism.
3. The Court explains why Congress’s decision to create a wrongful death remedy in international waters (in the Death on the High Seas Act) does not preclude the creation of a judicial equivalent in territorial waters where state law does not do so. That part of the opinion involves a thoughtful discussion of federalism, statutory interpretation, and the evolution of the admiralty remedy of unseaworthiness (which I’ll talk more about next week).
4. The Court then concludes by offering a detailed explanation about why stare decisis does not counsel in favor of sticking with precedent in this instance, largely because the current rules promotes uncertainty and leads to all sorts of inconsistent outcomes in similarly situated cases.
Take a look sometime–you’ll be glad you did.