Case Brief: The Schooner Exchange Vs. M’Faddon


Jurisdiction is a practical authority given to a legal body to deal with legal matters by implications. In Public International Law, the concept of jurisdiction has a strong link with sovereignty. Jurisdiction allows State for sovereign independence which they pass on with the global system of equal States stating the laws related to persons or activities in which they have a legal interest. Territorial Jurisdiction of the States.

It is derived from State sovereignty and constitutes several features. It is the authority of the State over persons, property and events which are primarily within its territories. State Authority has the power to prescribe, enforce and adjudicate the Rules of Law.

The territorial jurisdiction of the State extends over to its with:

  1. land,
  2. national airspace,
  3. internal water,
  4. territorial sea,
  5. national aircraft,
  6. national vessel,

It does not only encompass the crime committed on its territory but also the crimes that have effects within its territory. In such a case, a concurrent jurisdiction occurs.

The schooner Exchange, owned by John McFaddon and William Greetham, sailed from Baltimore, Maryland, on October 27, 1809, for San Sebastián, Spain. On December 30, 1810, the Exchange  was seized by order of Napoleon Bonaparte.

The Exchange was then armed and commissioned as a French warship, under the name of Balaou. When the vessel later docked in Philadelphia because of storm damage, McFaddon and Greetham filed an action in the United States Court for the District of Pennsylvania to seize the vessel, claiming that it had been taken illegally.

The district court found that it did not have jurisdiction over the dispute. On appeal, the  Circuit Court for the District of Pennsylvania reversed the decision of the district court and ordered the district court to proceed to the merits of the case.


Facts. Two Americans (P) claimed they owned and were entitled to the schooner Exchange they seized on the high seas. The claim which the United States Attorney (D) put forward for the prevention of the ship leaving was that, the ship which was owned by the Emperor of France had been forced to enter the port of Philadelphia due to bad weather conditions.
At this point in time, the U.S and France were on friendly terms. The United States’ (D) request for the dismissal of ownership and release of the ship was granted by the district court.

However, this judgment was reversed by the circuit court and this did not prevent the United States (D) from appealing to the U.S. Supreme Court.


Are National ships of war viewed as been exempted by the consent of the power of the friendly jurisdiction whose port the ship enters?


The Supreme Court reversed the circuit court’s decision and affirmed the district court’s dismissal of the action.

Chief Justice Marshall delivered the opinion of the Supreme Court. He noted that by the definition of sovereignty, a state has absolute and exclusive jurisdiction within its own territory but it could also, by implied or express consent, waive jurisdiction.[2] 

Moreover, Marshall also noted that, under customary international law, jurisdiction was presumed to be waived in a number of situations. For instance, visiting foreign sovereigns and their diplomatic representatives were generally free from the jurisdiction of domestic courts.[3] 

Similarly, a state granting permission for a foreign army free passage across its territory generally implied a waiver of jurisdiction over that army.[4] That custom was established so firmly and necessarily for international relations that it would be wrongful for a country to violate it without prior notice. 

Marshall further noted that while the right of free passage by an army usually had to be explicitly granted (likely because such passage inevitably involves physical damage of some sort), by maritime custom, a nation’s ports were presumptively open to all friendly ships.

While a nation could close its ports to the warships of another country, it would have to issue some form of declaration to do so. Without such a declaration, a friendly foreign warship could enter a nation’s port with its implied consent.

Marshall further distinguished the difference between private merchant ships and citizens, who are subject to a nation’s jurisdiction when they enter its ports with the nation’s implied consent, and military ships. Namely, private ships do not carry with them the sovereign status of military ships and the privileges that accompany it. 

Therefore, Marshall concluded that “a principle of public [international] law [is] that national ships of war, entering the port of a friendly power open for their reception, are to be considered as exempted by the consent of that power from its jurisdiction.” 

Applying that analysis to the facts at hand, Marshall found that the courts did not have jurisdiction over the case. 


The absolute form of sovereign immunity from judicial jurisdiction was implicated in this case. Three principles were brought forward by the court in this case; the immunity that all civilized nations allow to foreign ministers; the exemption of the person of the sovereign from arrest or imprisonment within a foreign country; and when a sovereign permits troops of a foreign prince to pass through his territory, such sovereign is understood to mean he has ceded a portion of his territorial jurisdiction.


The court found that the vessel was a national armed vessel commissioned by, and in the service of the emperor of France. The court found that the United States was at peace with France and permitted the vessel to enter the ports as a friendly power.

The court held that when the vessel entered American territory, it did so under the implied promise that the vessel was exempt from United States jurisdiction and enjoyed sovereign immunity.



Author: Poojitha Polichetty

Leave a Reply

Call for Ppaers/ Legal Lock Journal/ Volume 2 Issue 1

For regular updates>