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U.S. Supreme Court

Berizzi Brothers Co. v. Steamship Pesaro, 271 U.S. 562 (1926)

Berizzi Brothers Co. v. Steamship Pesaro

No. 334

Argued May 7, 1926

Decided June 7, 1926

271 U.S. 562




A ship owned and possessed by a friendly foreign government, and operated by it in the carriage of merchandise for hire, in the interest and service of the nation, is a public ship, and is immune from arrest under process based on a libel in rem by a private suitor, and the district court has no jurisdiction of the case under Jud.Code, § 24, cl. 3, granting that court jurisdiction of "all civil causes of admiralty and maritime jurisdiction." P. 271 U. S. 570.


Appeal from a decree of the district court in admiralty dismissing a libel in rem against a ship owned, possessed, and operated for trade purposes by the Italian government, for want of jurisdiction. See 277 F.4d 3.

Page 271 U. S. 569

MR. JUSTICE VAN DEVANTER delivered the opinion of the Court.

This was a libel in rem against the steamship Pesaro on a claim for damages arising out of a failure to deliver certain artificial silk accepted by her at a port in Italy for

Page 271 U. S. 570

carriage to the port of New York. The usual process issued, on which the vessel was arrested, and subsequently she was released, a bond being given for her return, or the payment of the libelant's claim, if the court had jurisdiction and the claim was established. In the libel, the vessel was described as a general ship engaged in the common carriage of merchandise for hire. The Italian ambassador to the United States appeared, and, on behalf of the Italian government, specially set forth that the vessel at the time of her arrest was owned and possessed by that government, was operated by it in its service and interest, and therefore was immune from process of the courts of the United States. At the hearing it was stipulated that the vessel, when arrested, was owned, possessed, and controlled by the Italian government, was not connected with its naval or military forces, was employed in the carriage of merchandise for hire between Italian ports and ports in other countries, including the port of New York, and was so employed in the service and interest of the whole Italian nation, as distinguished from any individual member thereof, private or official, and that the Italian government never had consented that the vessel be seized or proceeded against by judicial process. On the facts so appearing, the court sustained the plea of immunity, and on that ground entered a decree dismissing the libel for want of jurisdiction. This direct appeal is from that decree, and was taken before the Act of February 13, 1925, became effective.

The single question presented for decision by us is whether a ship owned and possessed by a foreign government, and operated by it in the carriage of merchandise for hire, is immune from arrest under process based on a libel in rem by a private suitor in a federal district court exercising admiralty jurisdiction.

This precise question never has been considered by this Court before. Several efforts to present it have been made

Page 271 U. S. 571

in recent years, but always in circumstances which did not require its consideration. The nearest approach to it in this Court's decisions is found in @ 11 U. S. 136):

"The word being composed of distinct sovereignties, possessing equal rights and equal independence, whose mutual benefit is promoted by intercourse with each other, and by an interchange of those good offices which humanity dictates and its wants require, all sovereigns have consented to a relaxation in practice, in cases under certain peculiar circumstances, of that absolute and complete jurisdiction within their respective territories which sovereignty confers."

"This consent may, in some instances, be tested by common usage, and by common opinion, growing out of that usage."

"A motion would justly be considered as violating its faith, although that faith might not be expressly plighted,

Page 271 U. S. 572

which should suddenly and without previous notice exercise its territorial powers in a manner not consonant to the usages and received obligations of the civilized world."

"This full and absolute territorial jurisdiction being alike the attribute of every sovereign, and being incapable of conferring extraterritorial power, would not seem to contemplate foreign sovereigns nor their sovereign rights as its objects. One sovereign being in no respect amenable to another, and being bound by obligations of the highest character not to degrade the dignity of his nation by placing himself or its sovereign rights within the jurisdiction of another, can be supposed to enter a foreign territory only under an express license, or in the confidence that the immunities belonging to his independent sovereign station, though not expressly stipulated, are reserved by implication, and will be extended to him."

"This perfect equality and absolute independence of sovereigns, and this common interest impelling them to mutual intercourse and an interchange of good offices with each other, have given rise to a class of cases in which every sovereign is understood to waive the exercise of a part of that complete exclusive territorial jurisdiction which has been stated to be the attribute of every nation."

After discussing the statute of a sovereign, his ministers, and his troops when they or any of them enter the territory of another sovereign, he proceeded (p. 11 U. S. 141):

"If there be no treaty applicable to the case, and the sovereign, from motives deemed adequate by himself, permits his ports to remain open to the public ships of foreign friendly powers, the conclusion seems irresistable, that they may enter by his assent. And if they enter by his assent necessarily implied, no just reason is perceived by the Court for distinguishing their case from that of vessels which enter by express assent."

"In all the cases of exemption which have been reviewed, much has been implied, but the obligation of

Page 271 U. S. 573

what was implied has been found equal to the obligation of that which was expressed. Are these reasons for denying the application of this principle to ships of war?"

And then, after suggesting that there is a wide difference between the status of private individuals who enter foreign territory, or send their private ships there for purposes of trade, and the status of public war vessels when a foreign waters, he further said (p. 11 U. S. 145):

"It seems, then, to the Court to be a principle of public law that national ships of war, entering the port of a friendly power open for their reception, are to be considered as exempted by the consent of that power from its jurisdiction."

"Without doubt, the sovereign of the place is capable of destroying this implication. He may claim and exercise jurisdiction either by employing force or by subjecting such vessels to the ordinary tribunals. But until such power be exerted in a manner not to be misunderstood, the sovereign cannot be considered as having imparted to the ordinary tribunals a jurisdiction, which it would be a breach of faith to exercise. Those general statutory provisions, therefore, which are descriptive of the ordinary jurisdiction of the judicial tribunals, which give an individual whose property has been wrested from him a right to claim that property in the courts of the country in which it is found, ought not, in the opinion of this Court, to be so construed as to give them jurisdiction in a case, in which the sovereign power has impliedly consented to waive its jurisdiction."

It will be perceived that the opinion, although dealing comprehensively with the general subject, contains no reference to merchant ships owned and operated by a government. But the omission is not of special significance, for, in 1812, when the decision was given, merchant ships were operated only by private owners, and there was little thought of governments' engaging in such operations. That came much later.

Page 271 U. S. 574

The decision in The Exchange therefore cannot be taken as excluding merchant ships held and used by a government from the principles there announced. On the contrary, if such ships come within those principles, they must be held to have the same immunity as war ships, in the absence of a treaty or statute of the United Stated evincing a different purpose. No such treaty or statute has been brought to our attention.

We think the principles are applicable alike to all ships held and used by a government for a public purpose, and that when, for the purpose of advancing the trade of its people or providing revenue for its treasury, a government acquires, mans, and operates ships in the carrying trade, they are public ships in the same sense that war ships are. We know of no international usage which regards the maintenance and advancement of the economic welfare of a people in time of peace of any less a public purpose than the maintenance and training of a naval force.

The subsequent course of decision in other courts gives strong support to our conclusion.

In Briggs v. Light Boats, 11 Allen 157, there was involved a proceeding against three vessels to subject them to a lien and to satisfy it through their seizure and sale. The boats had been recently acquired by the United States, and were destined for use as floating lights to aid navigation. Whether their ownership and intended use rendered them immune from such a proceeding and seizure was the principal question. In answering it in the affirmative the state court, speaking through Mr. Justice Gray, afterwards a member of this Court, said (p. 163):

"These vessels were not held by the United States, as property might perhaps be held by a monarch, in a private or personal, rather than in a public or political, character. . . . They were, in the precise and emphatic language of the plea to the jurisdiction, 'held

Page 271 U. S. 575

and owned by the United States for public uses.'"

And again (p. 165):

"The immunity from such interference arises not because they are instruments of war, but because they are instruments of sovereignty, and does not depend on the extent or manner of their actual use at any particular moment, but on the purpose to which they are devoted."

In the Parlement Belge, L.R. 5 P. D.197, the question was whether a vessel belonging to Belgium and used by that government in carrying the mail and in transporting passengers and freight for hire could be subjected to a libel in rem in the admiralty court of Great Britain. The Court of Appeal gave a negative answer, and put its ruling on two grounds, one being that the vessel was public property of a foreign government in use for national purposes. After reviewing many cases bearing on the question, including The Exchange, the court said:

"The principle to be deduced from all these cases is that, as a consequence of the absolute independence of every sovereign authority, and of the international comity which induces every sovereign state to respect the independence and dignity of every other sovereign state, each and every one declines to exercise by means of its courts any of its territorial jurisdiction over the person of any sovereign or ambassador of any other state, or over the public property of any state which is destined to public use, or over the property of any ambassador, though such sovereign, ambassador, or property be within its territory, and therefore but for the common agreement, subject to its jurisdiction."

Sometimes it is said of that decision that it was put on the ground that a libel in rem under the British admiralty practice is not a proceeding solely against property, but one directly or indirectly impleading the owner -- in that instance, the Belgian government. But this latter was given as an additional and independent ground, as is expressly stated in the opinion at 217.

Page 271 U. S. 576

The ruling in that case has been consistently followed and applied in England from 1880, when it was made, to the present day. Young v. The Scotia, 1903 A.C. 501; The Jassy, L.R. 1906 P.D. 270; The Gagara, L.R. 1919 P.D. 95; The Porto Alexandre, L.R. 1920 P.D. 30; The Jupiter, L.R. 1924 P.D. 236.

In the lower federal courts, there has been some diversity of opinion on the question, but the prevailing view has been that merchant ships owned and operated by a foreign government have the same immunity that war ships have. Among the cases so holding is The Maipo, 252 F.6d 7, and 259 F.3d 7. The principal case announcing the other view is The Pesaro, 277 F.4d 3. That was a preliminary decision in the present case, but it is not the one now under review, which came later and was the other way.

We conclude that the general words of § 24, clause 3 of the Judicial Code, investing the district courts with jurisdiction of "all civil causes of admiralty and maritime jurisdiction," must be construed, in keeping with the last paragraph before quoted from The Exchange, as not intended to include a libel in rem against a public ship, such as the Pesaro, of a friendly foreign government. It results from this that the court below rightly dismissed the libel for want of jurisdiction.

Decree affirmed.

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