PRIZE COURTS derive their name from their function, which is to pass on the validity and disposition of "prizes," a term referring to the seizure of a ship or its cargo by the maritime, not the land, forces of a belligerent. Jurisdictional pronouncements of prize courts have expanded the definition of lawful capture of property at sea to include the territorial waters and navigable rivers of occupied enemy territory and have accepted as legitimate the seizure of vessels in dry docks, ports, and rivers. According to the U.S. Prize Act of 1941, the seizure of aircraft may also fall under the jurisdiction of prize courts.
Although belligerents are operating under the rules of international law when conducting seizures, the prize courts themselves are national instrumentalities. Their structures, rules of procedure, and means of disposition of the prizes emanate from national law. They may apply the principles of international law to determine the validity of seizures and the liability to condemnation, but in many cases the rules of international law are applied by virtue of their adoption by the national legal system or incorporation into it. Domestic enactments and regulations may also modify prize courts. It is not surprising, therefore, that worldwide prize-court decisions have lacked uniformity and have not always reflected a high degree of recognition of, and respect for, international law regarding capture and condemnation. In the United States, jurisdiction in prize matters belongs to the federal district courts, with the right of appeal to the circuit court of appeals and ultimately the Supreme Court. The domestic courts have the authority to appoint special prize commissioners to act abroad. An international prize court has never been established.
Bourguignon, Henry J. The First Federal Court: The Federal Appellate Prize Court of the American Revolution, 1775–1787. Memoirs of the American Philosophical Society, vol. 122. Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1977.
Warren, Gordon H. Fountain of Discontent: The Trent Affair and Freedom of the Seas. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1981.
See alsoFreedom of the Seas; Hague Peace Conferences; London, Declaration of; Trent Affair.
Tribunals with jurisdiction to decide disputes involving captures made upon the high seas during times of war and to declare the captured property as a prize if it is lawfully subject to that sentence.
In England, admiralty courts possess jurisdiction as prize courts, in addition to their customary admiralty jurisdiction. The judge of an admiralty court receives a special commission in time of war to empower him or her to conduct such proceedings.
In the United States, federal district courts have original jurisdiction to try prize cases.