The Judicial Invention of Property Norms: Ellickson’s Whalemen Revisited

Robert Deal

Marshall University

January 2, 2011

Robert C. Ellickson has argued that whalemen developed norms to settle arguments over contested whales. These norms, Ellickson explained, were largely adopted by courts as the property law of whaling. Ellickson’s point is that whaling norms “did not mimic law; they created law.” Ellickson is certainly correct that the close-knit community of nineteenth century American whalemen managed to settle disputes in ways which maximized group welfare. What Ellickson has failed to recognize is that that the means by which whalemen resolved disputes without violence or frequent involvement of courts was built not upon widely accepted norms, but rather upon the application of some rather general maxims that were often poorly understood even by experienced captains and crews. Whaling disputes were, in fact, most often settled through compromises grounded in inchoate notions of what constituted honorable behavior arising out of the particular situation and parties involved.

In seeking to settle the handful of litigated disputes, judges drafted opinions that suggested a level of agreement among whalemen as to prevailing norms that never existed at sea. The scholarly acceptance that judges accurately stated whaling customs explains the mistaken belief that whalemen created the American property law of whaling. Instead, judges and the lawyers who represented ship owners were to a large degree responsible for creating much of what came to be memorialized in legal treatises by the end of the nineteenth century as the property law of whaling.

A close examination of trial transcripts and depositions from two of the five whaling disputes from the Sea of Okhotsk that were litigated in the nineteenth century reveals the vagaries of whaling norms and the problems in using judicial opinions to recover such practices. In Heppingstone v. Mammen, it is impossible to draw from the testimony of crew members and expert witnesses anything resembling a norm upon which battles over contested whales could be resolved at sea or in court. The court’s misunderstanding in Swift v. Gifford of whaling practices was quickly accepted by legal scholars as definitive evidence that the whaling fleet in the North Pacific had adopted a single standard for determining when an interest in a fleeing whale ripened into ownership.

Whalemen in the Sea of Okhotsk proved adept at resolving controversies on a common sense, ad hoc basis without universal norms. The close knit nature of their community, the intensely communal nature of their competition, and the economic pressure to settle disputes allowed Okhotsk whalemen to resolve contests without the aid of well settled norms.

Number of Pages in PDF File: 32

Keywords: Norms, Whaling

JEL Classification: K11

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Date posted: January 3, 2011  

Suggested Citation

Deal, Robert, The Judicial Invention of Property Norms: Ellickson’s Whalemen Revisited (January 2, 2011). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1734031 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.1734031

Contact Information

Robert Deal (Contact Author)
Marshall University ( email )
Huntington, WV 25755-2300
United States
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