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.

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3 Responses

  1. Joe Miller says:

    Curious – What’s the best Admiralty casebook?

  2. Joe says:

    Harlan is much respected, including by various recent justices, for his professionalism. In the area of privacy and unenumerated rights generally, his dissenting opinion of Poe v. Ullman is another well respected opinion.

  3. JAD says:

    When I took Constitutional Law in college, we were required to subscribe to the Supreme Court’s slip opinions, and it was in perusing these cases that I stumbled across this marvelous opinion. It is, frankly, the most brilliantly crafted opinion that I have ever read. No other Justice but Harlan would have spent half the time dispensing with this uncontroversial case – and none could have done it better.

    In reading the opinion, it is important to remember that Harlan really revered the concept of stare decisis and that overruling an over 80 year old precedent was not small matter for him. Thus, in doing so, Harlan ensured that The Harrisburg would receive a very respectful funeral.

    Thanks for reviving my memory of this great opinion.