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Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Courts - "It May Float, but a Home Isn’t a Boat, Justices Rule." and some ILB observations

That is the heading to an Adam Liptak column in today's NY Times. A few quotes [ILB emphasis]:

WASHINGTON — A floating home is not a vessel to be regulated under federal admiralty law, the Supreme Court ruled on Tuesday in a colorful decision that featured photographs and the first dissenting opinion in an argued case since the term started in October.

The case was closely watched by businesses that operate floating structures like casinos, restaurants and hotels. Structures deemed to be vessels are subject to federal laws and regulations, including ones concerning safety, employment and taxes.

The case concerned what Justice Stephen G. Breyer, writing for the majority in the 7-to-2 decision, described as “a house-like plywood structure with French doors on three sides.” Inside were a bedroom, sitting room, closet and kitchen. A stairway led to an office on the second floor.

The home could not propel itself, but it was occasionally towed from one Florida marina to another, sometimes over long distances. In 2006, it was docked at a marina owned by the City of Riviera Beach, Fla. A dispute over dockage fees led to a lawsuit under federal admiralty law.

The owner of the structure, Fane Lozman, countered that the court had no jurisdiction because his home was not a vessel. A federal law defines vessels to include “every description of watercraft or other artificial contrivance used, or capable of being used, as a means of transportation on water.”

ILB: If this sounds somewhat familiar, it is because this or related questions have come up a number of times with Indiana casino boats.

More from Liptak's story today:

The correct inquiry, Justice Breyer went on, was whether “a reasonable observer” would conclude that the structure was “designed to a practical degree for ‘transportation on water.’ ” Mr. Lozman’s home, he said, did not qualify.

In announcing the ruling on Tuesday morning, Justice Breyer noted that the written decision included photographs of the home at issue and of a wharf boat of the sort that the court had ruled was not a vessel in a 1926 decision. “Even though a picture is worth a thousand words,” Justice Breyer said from the bench, “we have written a few words of explanation as well.”

Justice Sonia Sotomayor filed a dissent, which was joined by Justice Anthony M. Kennedy. She said the majority’s approach created a “novel and unnecessary” new standard for deciding what is a vessel. “By importing windows, doors, room style and other aesthetic criteria" into the analysis, she wrote, “the majority gives our vessel test an ‘I know it when I see it’ flavor.” She cited a 1964 concurrence from Justice Potter Stewart in which he made that observation about “hard-core pornography.”

The majority’s standard was not only “opaque and unpredictable” but also “completely malleable,” Justice Sotomayor wrote. She said she could not say why Mr. Lozman had won.

“It is unclear,” she wrote, “why Lozman’s craft is a floating home, why all floating homes are not vessels, or why Lozman’s craft is not a vessel.”

The better course, she said, would have been to return the case to the lower courts for a fuller determination of the facts concerning the structure.

Instead, Justice Sotomayor wrote, “the majority works real damage to what has long been a settled area of maritime law,” bringing uncertainty to businesses that “rely heavily on clear and predictable legal rules.”

ILB: Of course, I went straight to the opinion to see the pictures. But I was disappointed! SCOTUSblog is apparently now linking to their sponsor, Bloomburg Law's version of SCOTUS opinion. I looked in vain for the pictures! Instead, at the end of the majority opinion are these "Editor's Notes":
APPENDIX

[Editor's Note: This graphic is non-transferable.]

Petitioner's floating home. App. 69.

[Editor's Note: This graphic is non-transferable.]

50- by 200-foot wharf boat in Evansville, Indiana, on Nov. 13, 1918. H. R. Doc. No. 1521, 65th Cong., 3d Sess., Illustration No. 13 (1918).

Fortunately I was able to easily find the link to the Supreme Court's version of the opinion, which is familiarly formatted AND contains the two pictures, on pp. 16 and 17, the second photo being of the Evansville wharf boat from 1918.

Finally, here is SCOTUSblog's Lyle Denniston's analysis of the opinion. A few quotes:

Courts, of course, will be deciding what the “reasonable observer” would see, presumably on a case-by-case basis.

Under this test, not all houseboats will be exempt from maritime regulation, since many of them have motors to propel them, so a reasonable view of them is likely to be that they can be moved over water, carrying goods and people. But neither will all dockside structures used as homes, and ill-fitted for gliding over the waves, come under the new definition, because they probably will not be seen as transport vessels. It may take some time, and quite a bit of litigation, to see the difference between them, and between other floating structures. * * *

Justice Sonia Sotomayor dissented, in an opinion joined by Justice Anthony M. Kennedy. They described the “reasonable observer” test fashioned by the Breyer opinion as based upon notions that have “never appeared in any of our cases.” The majority’s application of it here, the dissenters said, “effectively (and erroneously) introduces a subjective component into the vessel-status inquiry,” even while acting as it was creating an “objective” test. The majority, Justice Sotomayor wrote, “works real damage to what has long been a settled area of maritime law….Numerous maritime industries rely heavily on clear and predictable legal rules for determining which ships are vessels.” That will now be frustrated, the dissenting opinion said, by the majority’s “distorted application of our settled law.”

The dissenters also argued that the Court should have returned the case to lower courts to more extensively examine Lozman’s houseboat — an inquiry that, of course, would have had to be based on what was already known about it, since it no longer exists.

Posted by Marcia Oddi on January 16, 2013 02:06 PM
Posted to Courts in general