This Day in Supreme Court History—February 8, 1794

On this day in 1794, Supreme Court arguments opened in the case of Glass v. The Sloop Betsey. A French privateer, Pierre Arcade Johannene, had captured a Swedish-owned vessel—The Betsey—and delivered it to a Baltimore port. Johannene was probably acting under the presumption that the Betsey was a British vessel. France and Britain were at war at the time, and French privateers often brought captured British ships to American ports to determine what to do with the cargo (this despite President Washington’s declaration that America would remain neutral in the conflict).

Upon arriving in Baltimore, there was a dispute over what to do with the cargo on the Betsey. The vessel was from Sweden—another neutral party in the conflict between France and Britain—and the cargo on board belonged to both Swedes and Americans. One American sued in the U.S. District Court in Maryland to recover his share of the cargo, but the court held that it lacked jurisdiction to hear an admiralty dispute. On appeal, the circuit court agreed, leading Glass to the Supreme Court.

After four days of arguments at the Court, Chief Justice John Jay delivered the Court’s unanimous decision on February 19, 1794. The Court held that the lower federal courts had jurisdiction to hear admiralty cases and remanded Glass back to the District Court.

Although the legal question at issue in Glass was a relatively technical jurisdictional question, Jay made clear in his opinion for the Court that he saw at stake much larger questions involving the sovereignty of the new nation. Johannene apparently took the Betsey to Baltimore under the presumption that since no American court had the jurisdiction to decide ownership of the cargo, France would establish a court in the United States to adjudicate these kinds of admiralty disputes. Jay was having none of this. “[N]o foreign power can of right institute or erect any court of judicature of any kind within the jurisdiction of the United States” without express permission. The new courts of the new nation would deal with legal disputes on its shores.

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