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Although the Eleventh Amendment bars federal jurisdiction over general title disputes relating to state property interests, it does not necessarily follow that it applies to in rem admiralty actions, or that in such actions, federal courts may not exercise jurisdiction over property that the state does not actually possess.
Respondent researchers located a historic shipwreck in the state's territorial waters and sought federal resolution to their ownership claim. The petitioner state asserted title under the Abandoned Shipwreck Act of 1987 (ASA), 43 U.S.C.S. §§ 2101-2106, and a state law. The district court concluded that the state failed to demonstrate a colorable claim and that the ASA preempted the state law. The Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed. The state argued that the Eleventh Amendment barred a federal court from considering the claim.
Did the Eleventh Amendment prohibit federal jurisdiction over the disputed wreck?
The court determined that the Eleventh Amendment did not preclude federal jurisdiction over the wreck because the state did not possess the res. Admiralty and maritime jurisdiction were not wholly exempt from the Eleventh Amendment. In the instant matter, however, the state was not in possession, unlawful or otherwise, of the res. Thus, the Eleventh Amendment did not necessarily prohibit federal jurisdiction over the disputed wreck. In applying analogous sovereign immunity principles, the court held that jurisprudence regarding sovereign immunity of foreign governments had turned on the sovereign's possession of the res at issue and further supported its conclusion that there was no Eleventh Amendment bar to federal jurisdiction in the instant circumstances. A remand for reevaluation of the ASA claim was required in light of the ruling on the Eleventh Amendment issue and the court declined to analyze the preemptive effect of the ASA on the state law.