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May 31, 2012

Can Seasteads Ever Truly Escape the American Court System?

A brief introduction is in order.  I am Robert Mongole and I will be working as Legal Intern at The Seasteading Institute this summer. I am a Juris Doctor and Doctor of Civil Law candidate at the Louisiana State University Paul M. Hebert Law Center. I received my bachelor’s degree in English and Creative Writing from the Florida State University. I spend my free time hiking, reading poetry, and other equally unproductive tasks.

This blog post serves as an introduction to concepts that will be discussed succinctly via blogging and given a more thorough analysis in a legal research paper. Later posts will examine if contractual devices can be used to limit suits in American admiralty jurisdiction, and how they might be applied to protect seasteads from suits in the United States. They will also examine the court’s power of forum non conveniens (when a court refuses to hear a case because there is a more appropriate court for the case), and how the factors used to analyze the convenience of the forum might weigh towards American courts retaining jurisdiction, at least in seasteads’ preliminary existence.

Article III Section 2 of the United States Constitution grants broad powers for federal courts to hear maritime claims. This broad power has been used in the past to allow foreigners to bring suits in United States Court’s when their claim occurred on the high seas and even within the territorial waters of another nation. American courts applying admiralty law view themselves as fit to deal with world issues not just local issues, because the courts view admiralty law as similar throughout the world and assume people engaged in admiralty transactions have frequent contact with a number of nations.

Bringing suit in the United States offers the plaintiff many advantages. When the plaintiff is an American citizen it makes sense from a convenience standpoint. But foreigners often bring suit in American courts when they live on a different continent, half a world away. An English judge, Lord Denning summarized what draws foreigners into American courts best: “As a moth is drawn to the light, so is a litigant drawn to the United States. If he can only get his case into their courts, he stands to win a fortune.” American courts generally offer advantages such as strict liability, jury trials, contingent attorney’s fees and do not tax losing parties with their opponent’s attorney’s fees, and offer more extensive discovery than in foreign courts.

A seastead is likely to employ and have as visitors both American and non-American citizens. Both will likely want to utilize the advantages of American courts. The Seasteading Institute works to allow oceanic pioneers to test new ideas for government and inspire change around the world. Being drawn into American courts could hamper development of this and other goals. Future blog posts will examine what United States laws allow claims arising in foreign waters or the open seas to be brought in American courts and the how seasteads might use contractual clauses to prevent this.