By Brent Kendall
Maritime law is as old as the republic, yet we continue to argue about what counts as a boat.
The Supreme Court was home to that debate Monday as the justices heard arguments to decide if a Florida floating home was a vessel. Arguing yes was the city of Riviera Beach, which in 2009 used federal maritime law to have the structure “arrested” and towed away from a town marina. The city, which said the home violated marina safety regulations, later had it destroyed.
The homeowner, Fane Lozman, cried foul, saying the city’s legal position stretched the definition of a vessel beyond the bounds of common sense. Mr. Lozman said the boxy two-story structure, which had French doors and no steering or motor, was a house in every sense, except that it floated.
The quirky spat potentially has broad consequences: the vessel question can trigger the application of federal maritime law, which has special rules that can affect everything from worker-injury claims to property rights. The gambling industry in particular is following the case because it doesn’t want dockside casinos treated as vessels.
During an hour long argument Monday morning, nearly every justice came armed with hypothetical questions designed to test the city’s argument that a vessel is any structure that is practically capable of moving people or things over water.
Chief Justice John Roberts: How about an inner tube or inflatable raft?
Justice Elena Kagan: Tape some coins to the inner tube and now it’s moving money across the water — is it a vessel then?
Justice Stephen Breyer, meanwhile, asked about “Styrofoam sofas” (note to the justice: is there such a thing?) or other “absurd things that have nothing to do with ships or vessels and really could be used theoretically to carry something on the water.”
Justice Anthony Kennedy was more concerned about real-life structures, such as the USS Intrepid, an aircraft carrier that was turned into a museum on the Hudson River.
While the city’s lawyer, David Frederick of Kellogg, Huber, Hansen, Todd, Evans & Figel, appeared to have a difficult time defending his legal test of a vessel, Mr. Lozman’s arguments might not have sea legs, either. His lawyer, Stanford University law professor Jeffrey Fisher, said the vessel determination should depend on the purpose of the structure in question. Some justices suggested that a purpose-focused test wasn’t grounded in the language of the relevant federal statute.
A decision is expected by the end of June.
(This story has been posted on The Wall Street Journal Online’s Law Blog at http://blogs.wsj.com/law/.)
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