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Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Jurisdictionality and discretionary review

SCOTUS on Tuesday decided Lozman v. City of Riviera Beach, holding that a floating house was not a "vessel" for purpose of admiralty law because it was not "used, or capabale of being used, as a means of transportation on water." The Court thus held there was no jurisdiction over a municipality's attempt to establish and enforce a maritime lien on a floating house (a picture of which is included in the Appendix to the opinion) moored in its marina.

Two questions/comments on the case.

First a comment. As I wrote after oral argument, I still believe this case suffers from jurisdiction/merits conflation, although it was not discussed at all. Building on what I wrote in October: "Vessel" does not appear in the statute granting  admiralty jurisdiction, which states simply that district courts have original and exclusive jurisdiction over "[a]ny civil case of admiralty or maritime jurisidiction." Rather, the word appears in the Maritime Lien Act, which is the substantive law establishing a lien and a cause of action for a "person providing necessaries to a vessel." The Court then had to interpret the Rules of Construcion Act to define vessel for purposes of the MLA.

Thus, the meaning of vessel, and whether the thing at issue here is a vessel, should be a merits question. I cannot see any difference between whether something is a vessel subject to a maritime line and whether someone is an "employer" or "employee" in a Title VII action, both of which are treated as merits issues. One difference, I suppose, is that if a creditor attempts to take a lien on a res that turns out not to be a vessel, the creditor still can take a lien on the property, but the claim  reverts to one under state law. On the other hand, if a named defendant turns out not to be an "employer" under Title VII, the claim does not revert to anything; it simply fails. I don't buy the distinction, however. The Lozman opinion spends 15 pages trying to find the meaning of one word--vessel--that appears not in the jurisdictional grant, but in a separate statute that creates a cause of action and contains no jurisdictional language. Recent case law suggests that statute should be treated as substantive and whether it is satisfied as a merits question.

If the goal in jurisdictional analysis is simplicity (as the Court again repeats here), my approach is the simplest: The city's allegation that the object it is asserting the lien on is a vessel grants admiralty jurisdiction-full stop. If it then turns out not to be a vessel, then the city's claim for a maritime lien fails on the merits. And we end up in the same place--the city's claim fails.

Second, a question, first raised by a colleague: Why did the Court take this case? Given the discretionary nature of its jurisdiction and how few cases the Court hears in a term, why would it spend a slot on this case? Justice Breyer's majority opinion insists the grant was "[i]n light of uncertainty among the Circuits about application of the term 'capable'" in the definition of vessel. But aren't there more pressing issues of federal law with similar "uncertainty" that would be more worthy of the extraordinarily small amount of time and attention that the Court is willing to spend?

A few thoughts, although I am not sure any explains it. One is that admiralty is a uniquely federal area of law that does not come up all that often but that does have to be dealt with. So SCOTUS's responsibility for supervising the federal courts and federal law might prompt the justices to reach a bit more to find an admiralty case. This also plays into the view, expressed by one of my former professors, that the Court should take some obscure cases every so often, just to keep everyone honest (the prof had the non-delegation doctrine in mind, but admiralty also would do). Another possibility is that this is an example of the Court engaging, as it occasionally does, in some error correction, taking a case simply because the justices believe the lower court erred. Of course, the Court typically will do that only when significant federal interests are at stake, so we come back to the question of whether admiralty and the definition of vessel qualifies.

Anyone have other explanations for this grant and this decision?

Posted by Howard Wasserman on January 16, 2013 at 09:31 AM in Constitutional thoughts, Howard Wasserman, Law and Politics | Permalink


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There are tons of different types of floating equipment (especially in the oil and gas industry) that may or may not be covered by admiralty law depending on the outcome of this decision. A simple answer might be that the Court saw the potential impact of allowing such equipment to be subject to admiralty in error and decided to nip it in the bud before it became a more serious problem (i.e. when other local jurisdictions tried to follow Riviera Beach’s lead to put a lien on such property)

Posted by: J. Kirk McGill | Jan 17, 2013 9:23:54 AM

It was fun and they got to include a couple of cool photographs.

Posted by: Mark Fenster | Jan 16, 2013 10:43:07 AM

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