News | May 13, 2014

Admiralty & Maritime Law Division – Home of the Silver Oar 

By Capt. Anne Fischer, Admiralty & Maritime Law (Code 11)

When the going gets tough, the tough call the Admiralty and Maritime Law Division (Code 11), within Naval Civil Law Support Activity.  Code 11 provides legal advice to the Fleet worldwide, adjudicates claims against the Navy, asserts claims on behalf of the Navy, and serves as agency counsel supporting the Department of Justice in federal lawsuits involving the Navy.  Code 11’s practice covers diverse areas including admiralty tort and contract law, marine environmental tort law, and international maritime law.

Admiralty and maritime law is a specialized area of jurisprudence that predates English common law. The silver oar is a traditional symbol displayed by a court that is hearing an admiralty matter.  This tradition began in medieval England and was brought to America by the colonists.  A silver oar hangs in the Code 11 spaces on board the Washington Navy Yard as a reminder of our division’s unique mission and responsibilities within the Navy and the JAG Corps.

The division advises the Secretary of the Navy (SECNAV), the Chief of Naval Operations, the Judge Advocate General, Fleet commanders, and Department of the Navy activities at sea and ashore.  SECNAV has statutory authority to assert admiralty claims on behalf of the Navy and to pay admiralty claims against the Navy, and has delegated this authority to the Code 11 division director, also known as the deputy assistant judge advocate general (Admiralty and Maritime Law) and admiralty counsel of the Navy.

When damage or injury results from the operation of a Navy vessel or Navy property is damaged by a non-Navy vessel, Code 11 is called into action.  Incidents falling within our purview include collisions with commercial and private recreational vessels; groundings; oil spills; allisions with shore facilities; fishing gear damage; ship visitor and contractor injuries; Morale, Welfare, and Recreation (MWR) marina mishaps; damage and injury resulting from force protection, counter-piracy, and drug interdiction operations; maritime salvage operations; and damage and injury caused by aircraft embarked on Navy ships, e.g., sonic boom, rotor wash, and bombing range training.  We also advise on the admiralty liability risk associated with operations as varied as the transportation and disposal of chemical weapons at sea, National Collegiate Athletic Association basketball games played aboard Navy ships, commercial filming aboard Navy vessels, and Tiger Cruises.  The best reference for judge advocates is Chapter XI of the Manual of the Judge Advocate General (JAGMAN) which describes admiralty incidents and how to respond.

A unique feature of working in Code 11 is the opportunity to serve as a Department of Justice trial attorney.  An experienced admiralty attorney from Code 11 is detailed to the Department of Justice for a two year period to represent the United States in Federal Courts across the country.  This judge advocate wears civilian clothes and works in the Civil Division, Torts Branch, Aviation and Admiralty Section of the Department of Justice in Washington DC on cases involving the Navy and other related matters.  All Code 11 admiralty attorneys have the opportunity to work closely with the Department of Justice and often attend depositions and oral argument hearings in support of the assigned trial attorneys.  In addition, one of our billets is coded for an environmental law specialist since we are responsible for handling claims involving damage to natural resources such as coral reefs and oyster beds caused by groundings and oil spills from Navy ships.  Officers with Surface Warfare Qualifications or Merchant Marine experience are particularly suited to a Code 11 assignment because adjudicating admiralty claims often requires examining an incident from the perspective of Sailors on the bridge.

Code 11 provides legal advice on the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea, 1972, and Inland Navigation Rules.  We are responsible for reviewing navigational light placements on all Navy vessels and, when appropriate, certify in the Federal Register that Navy vessels are in compliance when a deviation is required.  Code 11 also maintains a proactive role across the full spectrum of underwater cultural resource protection issues affecting sunken Navy ships and aircraft worldwide.  We work closely with the Naval History and Heritage Command and Department of Justice to protect these artifacts from unauthorized disturbance.  Recent examples include the shipwrecks of Bonhomme Richard, flagship of John Paul Jones; a 19th century treasure-laden Spanish frigate; and the nuclear submarine USS Scorpion.

Code 11 reviews and comments on a broad range of statutes, regulations, and international conventions affecting the U.S. Navy and the Department of Defense.  We also represent the Department of the Navy in relations with other agencies, particularly the Departments of Justice, State, Interior, Commerce, Energy, Homeland Security, and Transportation regarding maritime matters.  The division provides consultation on a wide-ranging array of Federal government interagency working groups studying, drafting, and implementing various maritime environmental statutes, regulations, and international conventions.

The perspective gained working in Code 11 can be invaluable in future assignments. Code 11 is a place where you directly support Fleet operators and work closely with other Federal agencies and the private bar.  Anyone interested in learning more about how Code 11’s diverse practice continues the proud tradition of the silver oar is encouraged to contact us for more information.