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Admiralty and Maritime Law Under the Constitution

The Constitution grants the Supreme Court the power to hear cases involving admiralty and maritime jurisdiction. Generally speaking, this covers cases involving the high seas or other navigable waters within the United States, including shipping and other transactions on those waters.

Admiralty and Maritime Jurisdiction

United States Library of Congress, The Constitution of the United States of America: Analysis and Interpretation

Article III, Section 2, Clause 1 of the Constitution states:

The judicial Power shall extend to all Cases, in Law and Equity, arising under this Constitution, the Laws of the United States, and Treaties made, or which shall be made, under their Authority;—to all Cases affecting Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls;—to all Cases of admiralty and maritime Jurisdiction; to Controversies to which the United States shall be a Party;—to Controversies between two or more States; between a State and Citizens of another State, between Citizens of different States,—between Citizens of the same State claiming Lands under Grants of different States, and between a State, or the Citizens thereof, and foreign States, Citizens or Subjects.

The admiralty and maritime jurisdiction of the federal courts had its origins in the jurisdiction vested in the courts of the Admiral of the English Navy. Prior to independence, vice-admiralty courts were created in the Colonies by commissions from the English High Court of Admiralty. After independence, the states established admiralty courts, from which at a later date appeals could be taken to a court of appeals set up by Congress under the Articles of Confederation.1 Since one of the objectives of the Philadelphia Convention was the promotion of commerce through removal of obstacles occasioned by the diverse local rules of the states, it was only logical that it should contribute to the development of a uniform body of maritime law by establishing a system of federal courts and granting to these tribunals jurisdiction over admiralty and maritime cases.2

The Constitution uses the terms "admiralty and maritime jurisdiction" without defining them. Though closely related, the words are not synonyms. In England the word "maritime" referred to the cases arising upon the high seas, whereas "admiralty" meant primarily cases of a local nature involving police regulations of shipping, harbors, fishing, and the like. A long struggle between the admiralty and common law courts had, however, in the course of time resulted in a considerable curtailment of English admiralty jurisdiction. A much broader conception of admiralty and maritime jurisdiction existed in the United States at the time of the framing of the Constitution than in the Mother Country.3 At the very beginning of government under the Constitution, Congress conferred on the federal district courts exclusive original cognizance "of all civil causes of admiralty and maritime jurisdiction, including all seizures under laws of impost, navigation or trade of the United States, where the seizures are made, on waters which are navigable from the sea by vessels of ten or more tons burthen, within their respective districts as well as upon the high seas; saving to suitors, in all cases, the right of a common law remedy, where the common law is competent to give it."4 This broad legislative interpretation of admiralty and maritime jurisdiction soon won the approval of the federal circuit courts, which ruled that the extent of admiralty and maritime jurisdiction was not to be determined by English law but by the principles of maritime law as respected by maritime courts of all nations and adopted by most, if not by all, of them on the continent of Europe.5

Although a number of Supreme Court decisions had earlier sustained the broader admiralty jurisdiction on specific issues,6 it was not until 1848 that the Court ruled squarely in its favor, which it did by declaring that "whatever may have been the doubt, originally, as to the true construction of the grant, whether it had reference to the jurisdiction in England, or to the more enlarged one that existed in other maritime countries, the question has become settled by legislative and judicial interpretation, which ought not now to be disturbed."7 The Court thereupon proceeded to hold that admiralty had jurisdiction in personam as well as in rem over controversies arising out of contracts of affreightment between New York and Providence.

Admiralty and Maritime Cases

Admiralty and maritime jurisdiction comprises two types of cases: (1) those involving acts committed on the high seas or other navigable waters, and (2) those involving contracts and transactions connected with shipping employed on the seas or navigable waters. In the first category, which includes prize cases and torts, injuries, and crimes committed on the high seas, jurisdiction is determined by the locality of the act, while in the second category subject matter is the primary determinative factor.8 Specifically, contract cases include suits by seamen for wages,9 cases arising out of marine insurance policies,10 actions for towage11 or pilotage12 charges, actions on bottomry or respondentia bonds,13 actions for repairs on a vessel already used in navigation,14 contracts of affreightment,15 compensation for temporary wharfage,16 agreements of consortship between the masters of two vessels engaged in wrecking,17 and surveys of damaged vessels.18 That is, admiralty jurisdiction "extends to all contracts, claims and services essentially maritime."19 But the courts have never enunciated an unambiguous test which would enable one to determine in advance whether or not a given case is maritime.20 "The boundaries of admiralty jurisdiction over contracts—as opposed to torts or crimes—being conceptual rather than spatial, have always been difficult to draw. Precedent and usage are helpful insofar as they exclude or include certain common types of contract."21

Maritime torts include injuries to persons,22 damages to property arising out of collisions or other negligent acts,23 products liability suits,24 and violent dispossession of property.25 Unlike contract cases, maritime tort jurisdiction historically depended exclusively upon the commission of the wrongful act upon navigable waters, regardless of any connection or lack of connection with shipping or commerce.26 The Court has now held, however, that in addition to the requisite situs a significant relationship to traditional maritime activity must exist in order for the admiralty jurisdiction of the federal courts to be invoked.27 Both the Court and Congress have created exceptions to the situs test for maritime tort jurisdiction to extend landward the occasions for certain connected persons or events to come within admiralty, not without a little controversy.28

From the earliest days of the Republic, the federal courts sitting in admiralty have been held to have exclusive jurisdiction of prize cases.29 Also, in contrast to other phases of admiralty jurisdiction, prize law as applied by the British courts continued to provide the basis of American law so far as practicable,30 and so far as it was not modified by subsequent legislation, treaties, or executive proclamations. Finally, admiralty and maritime jurisdiction includes the seizure and forfeiture of vessels engaged in activities in violation of the laws of nations or municipal law, such as illicit trade,31 infraction of revenue laws,32 and the like.33

Admiralty Proceedings

Procedure in admiralty jurisdiction differs in few respects from procedure in actions at law, but the differences that do exist are significant.34 Suits in admiralty traditionally took the form of a proceeding in rem against the vessel, and, with exceptions to be noted, such proceedings in rem are confined exclusively to federal admiralty courts, because the grant of exclusive jurisdiction to the federal courts by the Judiciary Act of 1789 has been interpreted as referring to the traditional admiralty action, the in rem action, which was unknown to the common law.35 The savings clause in that Act under which a state court may entertain actions by suitors seeking a common-law remedy preserves to the state tribunals the right to hear actions at law where a common-law remedy or a new remedy analogous to a common-law remedy exists.36 Concurrent jurisdiction thus exists for the adjudication of in personam maritime causes of action against the owner of the vessel, and a plaintiff may ordinarily choose whether to bring his action in a state court or a federal court.

Forfeiture to the crown for violation of the laws of the sovereign was in English law an exception to the rule that admiralty has exclusive jurisdiction over in rem maritime actions and was thus considered a common-law remedy. Although the Supreme Court sometimes has used language that would confine all proceedings in rem to admiralty courts,37 such actions in state courts have been sustained in cases of forfeiture arising out of violations of state law.38

Perhaps the most significant admiralty court difference in procedure from civil courts is the absence of a jury trial in admiralty actions, with the admiralty judge trying issues of fact as well as of law.39 Indeed, the absence of a jury in admiralty proceedings appears to have been one of the principal reasons why the English government vested a broad admiralty jurisdiction in the colonial vice-admiralty courts, since they provided a forum where the English authorities could enforce the Navigation Laws without "the obstinate resistance of American juries."40

Territorial Extent of Admiralty and Maritime Jurisdiction

Although he was a vigorous exponent of the expansion of admiralty jurisdiction, Justice Story for the Court in The Steamboat Thomas Jefferson41 adopted a restrictive English rule confining admiralty jurisdiction to the high seas and upon rivers as far as the ebb and flow of the tide extended.42 The demands of commerce on western waters led Congress to enact a statute extending admiralty jurisdiction over the Great Lakes and connecting waters,43 and in The Genessee Chief v. Fitzhugh44 Chief Justice Taney overruled The Thomas Jefferson and dropped the tidal ebb and flow requirement. This ruling laid the basis for subsequent judicial extension of jurisdiction over all waters, salt or fresh, tidal or not, which are navigable in fact.45 Some of the older cases contain language limiting jurisdiction to navigable waters which form some link in an interstate or international waterway or some link in commerce,46 but these date from the time when it was thought the commerce power furnished the support for congressional legislation in this field.


  1. G. Gilmore & C. Black, The Law of Admiralty ch. 1 (1957).
  2. The records of the Convention do not shed light on the Framers' views about admiralty. The present clause was contained in the draft of the Committee on Detail. 2 Records of the Federal Convention of 1787, at 186–87 (Max Farrand ed., 1911). None of the plans presented to the Convention, with the exception of an apparently authentic Charles Pinckney plan, 3 id. at 601–04, 608, had mentioned an admiralty jurisdiction in national courts. See Putnam, How the Federal Courts Were Given Admiralty Jurisdiction, 10 Cornell L.Q. 460 (1925).
  3. G. Gilmore & C. Black, supra at ch. 1. In DeLovio v. Boit, 7 F. Cas. 418 (No. 3776) (C.C.D. Mass 1815), Justice Story delivered a powerful historical and jurisprudential argument against the then-restrictive English system. See also Waring v. Clarke, 46 U.S. (5 How.) 441, 451–59 (1847)New Jersey Steam Navigation Co. v. Merchants' Bank of Boston, 47 U.S. (6 How.) 344, 385–390 (1848).
  4. § 9, 1 Stat. 77 (1789), now 28 U.S.C. § 1333 in only slightly changed form. For the classic exposition, see Black, Admiralty Jurisdiction: Critique and Suggestions, 50 Colum. L. Rev. 259 (1950).
  5. E.g., DeLovio v. Boit, 7 F. Cas. 418 (No. 3776) (C.C.D. Mass. 1815) (Justice Story); The Seneca, 21 F. Cas. 1801 (No. 12670) (C.C.E.D. Pa. 1829) (Justice Washington).
  6. The Vengeance, 3 U.S. (3 Dall.) 297 (1796); The Schooner Sally, 6 U.S. (2 Cr.) 406 (1805); The Schooner Betsy, 8 U.S. (4 Cr.) 443 (1808)The Samuel, 14 U.S. (1 Wheat.) 9 (1816)The Octavia, 14 U.S. (1 Wheat.) 20 (1816).
  7. New Jersey Steam Navigation Co. v. Merchants' Bank of Boston, 47 U.S. (6 How.) 344, 386 (1848)see also Waring v. Clarke, 46 U.S. (5 How.) 441 (1847).
  8. DeLovio v. Boit, 7 F. Cas. 418, 444 (No. 3776) (C.C.D. Mass. 1815) (Justice Story); Waring v. Clarke, 46 U.S. (5 How.) 441 (1847).
  9. Sheppard v. Taylor, 30 U.S. (5 Pet.) 675, 710 (1831). A seaman employed by the government making a claim for wages cannot proceed in admiralty but must bring his action under the Tucker Act in the Court of Claims or in the district court if his claim does not exceed $10,000. Amell v. United States, 384 U.S. 158 (1966). In Kossick v. United Fruit Co., 365 U.S. 731 (1961), an oral agreement between a seaman and a shipowner whereby the latter in consideration of the seaman's forbearance to press his maritime right to maintenance and cure promised to assume the consequences of improper treatment of the seaman at a Public Health Service Hospital was held to be a maritime contract. See also Archawski v. Hanioti, 350 U.S. 532 (1956).
  10. Insurance Co. v. Dunham, 78 U.S. (11 Wall.) 1, 31 (1871)Wilburn Boat Co. v. Fireman's Fund Ins. Co., 348 U.S. 310 (1955). Whether admiralty jurisdiction exists if the vessel is not engaged in navigation or commerce when the insurance claim arises is open to question. Jeffcott v. Aetna Ins. Co., 129 F.2d 582 (2d Cir. 1942), cert. denied, 317 U.S. 663 (1942). Contracts and agreements to procure marine insurance are outside the admiralty jurisdiction. Compagnie Francaise De Navigation A Vapeur v. Bonnasse, 19 F.2d 777 (2d Cir. 1927).
  11. Knapp, Stout & Co. v. McCaffrey, 177 U.S. 638 (1900). For recent Court difficulties with exculpatory features of such contracts, see Bisso v. Inland Waterways Corp., 349 U.S. 85 (1955)Boston Metals Co. v. The Winding Gulf, 349 U.S. 122 (1955)United States v. Nielson, 349 U.S. 129 (1955)Southwestern Sugar & Molasses Co. v. River Terminals Corp., 360 U.S. 411 (1959)Dixilyn Drilling Corp. v. Crescent Towage & Salvage Co., 372 U.S. 697 (1963).
  12. Atlee v. Packet Co., 88 U.S. (21 Wall.) 389 (1875)Ex parte McNiel, 80 U.S. (13 Wall.) 236 (1872)See also Sun Oil v. Dalzell Towing Co., 287 U.S. 291 (1932).
  13. The Grapeshot, 76 U.S. (9 Wall.) 129 (1870)O'Brien v. Miller, 168 U.S. 287 (1897); The Aurora, 14 U.S. (1 Wheat.) 94 (1816); Delaware Mut. Safety Ins. Co. v. Gossler, 96 U.S. 645 (1877). But ordinary mortgages even though the securing property is a vessel, its gear, or cargo are not considered maritime contracts. Bogart v. The Steamboat John Jay, 58 U.S. (17 How.) 399 (1854)Detroit Trust Co. v. The Thomas Barlum, 293 U.S. 21, 32 (1934).
  14. New Bedford Dry Dock Co. v. Purdy, 258 U.S. 96 (1922)The General Smith, 17 U.S. (4 Wheat.) 438 (1819). There is admiralty jurisdiction even though the repairs are not to be made in navigable waters but, perhaps, in dry dock. North Pacific SS. Co. v. Hall Brothers Marine R. & S. Co., 249 U.S. 119 (1919). But contracts and agreements pertaining to the original construction of vessels are not within admiralty jurisdiction. Peoples Ferry Co. v. Joseph Beers, 61 U.S. (20 How.) 393 (1858)North Pacific S.S. Co., 249 U.S. at 127.
  15. New Jersey Steam Navigation Co. v. Merchants' Bank of Boston, 47 U.S. (6 How.) 344 (1848).
  16. Ex parte Easton, 95 U.S. 68 (1877).
  17. Andrews v. Wall, 44 U.S. (3 How.) 568 (1845).
  18. Janney v. Columbia Ins. Co., 23 U.S. (10 Wheat.) 411, 412, 415, 418 (1825); The Tilton, 23 F. Cas. 1277 (No. 14054) (C.C.D. Mass. 1830) (Justice Story).
  19. Ex parte Easton, 95 U.S. 68, 72 (1877)See, for a clearing away of some conceptual obstructions to the principle, Exxon Corp. v. Central Gulf Lines, Inc., 500 U.S. 603 (1991).
  20. E.g., DeLovio v. Boit, 7 F. Cas. 418, 444 (No. 3776) (C.C.D. Mass. 1815) (Justice Story); The Steamboat Orleans v. Phoebus, 36 U.S. (11 Pet.) 175, 183 (1837)The People's Ferry Co. v. Joseph Beers, 61 U.S. (20 How.) 393, 401 (1858)New England Marine Ins. Co. v. Dunham, 78 U.S. (11 Wall.) 1, 26 (1870)Detroit Trust Co. v. The Thomas Barlum, 293 U.S. 21, 48 (1934).
  21. Kossick v. United Fruit Co., 365 U.S. 731, 735 (1961).
  22. The City of Panama, 101 U.S. 453 (1880). Reversing a long-standing rule, the Court allowed recovery under general maritime law for the wrongful death of a seaman. Moragne v. States Marine Lines, 398 U.S. 375 (1970)Miles v. Apex Marine Corp., 498 U.S. 19 (1990).
  23. The Raithmoor, 241 U.S. 166 (1916)Erie R.R. v. Erie Transportation Co., 204 U.S. 220 (1907).
  24. See, e.g.Air & Liquid Sys. Corp. v. DeVries, 586 U.S. ____, No. 17-1104, slip op. at 5 (2019)E. River S.S. Corp. v. Transamerica Delaval, 476 U.S. 858, 865 (1986).
  25. L'Invincible, 14 U.S. (1 Wheat.) 238 (1816)In re Fassett, 142 U.S. 479 (1892).
  26. DeLovio v. Boit, 7 F. Cas. 418, 444 (No. 3776) (C.C.D. Mass. 1815) (Justice Story); Philadelphia, W. & B. R.R. v. Philadelphia & Havre De Grace Steam Towboat Co., 64 U.S. (23 How.) 209, 215 (1859)The Plymouth, 70 U.S. (3 Wall.) 20, 33–34 (1865)Grant-Smith-Porter Ship Co. v. Rohde, 257 U.S. 469, 476 (1922).
  27. Executive Jet Aviation v. City of Cleveland, 409 U.S. 249 (1972) (plane crash in which plane landed wholly fortuitously in navigable waters off the airport runway not in admiralty jurisdiction). However, so long as there is maritime activity and a general maritime commercial nexus, admiralty jurisdiction exists. Foremost Ins. Co. v. Richardson, 457 U.S. 668 (1982) (collision of two pleasure boats on navigable waters is within admiralty jurisdiction); Sisson v. Ruby, 497 U.S. 358 (1990) (fire on pleasure boat docked at marina on navigable water). See also Grubart v. Great Lakes Dredge & Dock Co., 513 U.S. 527 (1995), a tort claim arising out of damages allegedly caused by negligently driving piles from a barge into the riverbed, which weakened a freight tunnel that allowed flooding of the tunnel and the basements of numerous buildings along the Chicago River. The Court found that admiralty jurisdiction could be invoked. The location test was satisfied, because the barge, even though fastened to the river bottom, was a vessel for admiralty tort purposes; the two-part connection test was also satisfied, inasmuch as the incident had a potential to disrupt maritime commerce and the conduct giving rise to the incident had a substantial relationship to traditional maritime activity.
  28. Thus, the courts have enforced seamen's claims for maintenance and cure for injuries incurred on land. O'Donnell v. Great Lakes Co., 318 U.S. 36, 41–42 (1943). The Court has applied the doctrine of seaworthiness to permit claims by longshoremen injured on land because of some condition of the vessel or its cargo. Gutierrez v. Waterman S.S. Corp., 373 U.S. 206 (1963)Seas Shipping Co. v. Sieracki, 328 U.S. 85 (1946)Mahnich v. Southern S.S. Co., 321 U.S. 96 (1944)But see Victory Carriers v. Law, 404 U.S. 202 (1971). In the Jones Act, 41 Stat. 1007, 46 U.S.C. § 688, Congress gave seamen, or their personal representatives, the right to seek compensation from their employers for personal injuries arising out of their maritime employment. Respecting who is a seaman for Jones Act purposes, see Southwest Marine, Inc. v. Gizoni, 502 U.S. 81 (1991)McDermott International, Inc. v. Wilander, 498 U.S. 337 (1991). The rights exist even if the injury occurred on land. O'Donnell v. Great Lakes Co., 318 U.S. at 43; Swanson v. Mara Brothers, 328 U.S. 1, 4 (1946). In the Extension of Admiralty Jurisdiction Act, 62 Stat. 496, 46 U.S.C. § 740, Congress provided an avenue of relief for persons injured in themselves or their property by action of a vessel on navigable water which is consummated on land, as by the collision of a ship with a bridge. By the 1972 amendments to the Longshoremen's and Harbor Workers' Compensation Act, 86 Stat. 1251, amending 33 U.S.C. §§ 901–50, Congress broadened the definition of navigable waters to include in certain cases adjoining piers, wharfs, etc., and modified the definition of "employee" to mean any worker "engaged in maritime employment" within the prescribed meanings, thus extending the Act shoreward and changing the test of eligibility from "situs' alone to the "situs" of the injury and the "status" of the injured.
  29. Jennings v. Carson, 8 U.S. (4 Cr.) 2 (1807)Taylor v. Carryl, 61 U.S. (20 How.) 583 (1858).
  30. Thirty Hogsheads of Sugar v. Boyle, 13 U.S. (9 Cr.) 191 (1815)The Siren, 80 U.S. (13 Wall.) 389, 393 (1871).
  31. Hudson v. Guestier, 8 U.S. (4 Cr.) 293 (1808).
  32. The Vengeance, 3 U.S. (3 Dall.) 297 (1796)Church v. Hubbard, 6 U.S. (2 Cr.) 187 (1804); The Schooner Sally, 6 U.S. (2 Cr.) 406 (1805).
  33. The Brig Ann, 13 U.S. (9 Cr.) 289 (1815)The Sarah, 21 U.S. (8 Wheat.) 391 (1823)Maul v. United States, 274 U.S. 501 (1927).
  34. Gilmore & Black, supra at 30–33. There are no longer separate rules of procedure governing admiralty, unification of civil admiralty procedures being achieved in 1966. 7 A J. Moore's Federal Practice §§ .01 et seq (New York: 1971).
  35. The Moses Taylor, 71 U.S. (4 Wall.) 411 (1866)The Hine v. Trevor, 71 U.S. (4 Wall.) 555 (1867)But see Taylor v. Carryl, 61 U.S. (20 How.) 583 (1858). In Madruga v. Superior Court, 346 U.S. 556 (1954), the jurisdiction of a state court over a partition suit at the instance of the majority shipowners was upheld on the ground that the cause of action affected only the interest of the defendant minority shipowners and therefore was in personam. Justice Frankfurter's dissent argued: "If this is not an action against the thing, in the sense which that has meaning in the law, then the concepts of a res and an in rem proceeding have an esoteric meaning that I do not understand." Id. at 564.
  36. After conferring exclusive jurisdiction in admiralty and maritime cases on the federal courts, § 9 of the Judiciary Act of 1789, 1 Stat. 77, added "saving to suitors, in all cases the right of a common law remedy, where the common law is competent to give it. . . ." Fixing the concurrent federal-state line has frequently been a source of conflict within the Court. Southern Pacific Co. v. Jensen, 244 U.S. 205 (1917).
  37. The Moses Taylor, 71 U.S. (4 Wall.) 411, 431 (1867).
  38. C. J. Henry Co. v. Moore, 318 U.S. 133 (1943).
  39. The Vengeance, 3 U.S. (3 Dall.) 297 (1796); The Schooner Sally, 6 U.S. (2 Cr.) 406 (1805); The Schooner Betsy, 8 U.S. (4 Cr.) 443 (1808)The Whelan, 11 U.S. (7 Cr.) 112 (1812)The Samuel, 14 U.S. (1 Wheat.) 9 (1816). If diversity of citizenship and the requisite jurisdictional amounts are present, a suitor may sue on the law side of the federal court and obtain a jury. Romero v. International Terminal Operating Co., 358 U.S. 354, 362–363 (1959). Jones Act claims, 41 Stat. 1007 (1920), 46 U.S.C. § 688, may be brought on the law side with a jury, Panama R.R. Co. v. Johnson, 264 U.S. 375 (1924), and other admiralty claims joined with a Jones Act claim may be submitted to a jury. RomerosupraFitzgerald v. United States Lines Co., 374 U.S. 16 (1963). There is no constitutional barrier to congressional provision of jury trials in admiralty. Genessee Chief v. Fitzhugh, 53 U.S. (12 How.) 443 (1851)Fitzgerald v. United States Lines Co., 374 U.S. 16, 20 (1963).
  40. C. J. Henry Co. v. Moore, 318 U.S. 133, 141 (1943).
  41. 23 U.S. (10 Wheat.) 428 (1825). On the political background of this decision, see 1 C. Warren, supra at 633–35.
  42. The tidal ebb and flow limitation was strained in some of its applications. Peyroux v. Howard, 32 U.S. (7 Pet.) 324 (1833)Waring v. Clarke, 46 U.S. (5 How.) 441 (1847).
  43. 5 Stat. 726 (1845).
  44. 53 U.S. (12 How.) 443 (1851).
  45. Some of the early cases include The Magnolia, 61 U.S. (20 How.) 296 (1857)The Eagle, 75 U.S. (8 Wall.) 15 (1868)The Daniel Ball, 77 U.S. (10 Wall.) 557 (1871). The fact that the body of water is artificial presents no barrier to admiralty jurisdiction. Ex parte Boyer, 109 U.S. 629 (1884)The Robert W. Parsons, 191 U.S. 17 (1903). In United States v. Appalachian Power Co., 311 U.S. 377 (1940), it was made clear that maritime jurisdiction extends to include waterways which by reasonable improvement can be made navigable. It has long been settled that the admiralty and maritime jurisdiction of the United States includes all navigable waters within the country. Southern S.S. Co. v. NLRB, 316 U.S. 31, 41 (1942).
  46. E.g.The Daniel Ball, 77 U.S. (10 Wall.) 557, 563 (1871)The Montello, 87 U.S. (20 Wall.) 430, 441–42 (1874).



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