January 16, 2013
Supreme Court Action: Admiralty Jurisdiction and Justice Thomas "Speaks"
The Supreme Court issued one opinion yesterday. It concerned an interpretation of a section of the Rules of Construction Act (1 U.S.C §3) that defines a vessel. The case is Lozman v. Riviera Beach (11-626). Lozman owned a floating home that was docked at a marina in Riviera Beach, FL. It had been towed between locations on several occasions with one tow running a distance of two hundred miles. The Court observed that the home had no ability to self-propel or generate electricity.
Lozman and the City did not get along very well. Riviera Beach tried evicting Lozman from the marina and ultimately filed an in rem action against Lozman under the Federal Maritime Lien Act, invoking admiralty jurisdiction in federal court. The District Court determined Lozman’s floating home was a vessel under the Rules of Construction Act and found for the city. The Eleventh Circuit affirmed. The Supreme Court took up the question of jurisdiction and focused on the statutory language defining a vessel, “every description of watercraft or other artificial contrivance used, or capable of being used, as a means of transportation on water.”
The Court looked to past precedents and took the position that the floating home was not designed to any practical degree to transport persons or things over water. The fact that it was towable did not change any of this:
Though our criterion is general, the facts of this case illustrate more specifically what we have in mind. But for the fact that it floats, nothing about Lozman’s home suggests that it was designed to any practical degree to transport persons or things over water. It had no rudder or other steering mechanism. 649 F. 3d, at 1269. Its hull was unraked, ibid., and it had a rectangular bottom 10 inches below the water. Brief for Petitioner 27; App. 37. It had no special capacity to generate or store electricity but could obtain that utility only through ongoing connections with the land. Id., at 40. Its small rooms looked like ordinary nonmaritime living quarters. And those inside those rooms looked out upon the world, not through watertight portholes, but through French doors or ordinary windows. Id., at 44–66.
The Court ultimately held that nothing about the home could lead a reasonable observer to consider it designed to a practical degree for transportation on water. As a side note Riviera Beach had taken possession of Lozman’s home via the prior litigation and had it destroyed. The City had posted a $25,000 bond in case Lozman prevailed. Whoops. Justice Breyer delivered the opinion of the Court, joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Scalia, Thomas, Ginsburg, Alito, and Kagan. Justice Sotomayor wrote a dissent joined by Justice Kennedy. She stated that the test of a reasonable observer changes the application of past precedent and would have remanded the case for more fact finding on the qualities of the floating home. A picture of the home is included on page 16 of the slip opinion.
In other startling Court news, Justice Thomas actually said something at a Supreme Court oral argument on Monday. He was moved to make an unintelligible joke that is reputed to be a dig at Yale (his alma mater) or Harvard. His last comment from the bench otherwise was February 22, 2006. Here is the section of the argument transcript from the case of Boyer v. Louisiana:
MS. SIGLER: Well, there was a provision - there is a provision in Louisiana law that allows someone to move for the admission and the certification of somebody as capital counsel, which was the procedure employed in this case. That is perfectly permissible. But Miss Lehman at that time was a very experienced attorney, and we lay out her qualifications in the brief. So while she may not have been perfectly qualified under Rule 31 to serve as lead counsel, she was certainly more than qualified -
JUSTICE SCALIA: She was a graduate of Yale law school, wasn't she?
MS. SIGLER: She's a very impressive attorney.
JUSTICE SCALIA: And another of his counsel,
Mr. Singer -- of the three that he had -- he was a graduate of Harvard law school, wasn't he?
MS. SIGLER: Yes, Your Honor.
JUSTICE SCALIA: Son of a gun.
JUSTICE THOMAS: Well -- he did not -
MS. SIGLER: I would refute that, Justice Thomas.
JUSTICE SOTOMAYOR: Counsel, do you want to define constitutionally adequate counsel? Is it anybody who's graduated from Harvard and Yale?
JUSTICE SOTOMAYOR: Or even just passed the Bar?
MS. SIGLER: Or LSU law.
JUSTICE SOTOMAYOR: I would think -- no, no, no. This is a very serious question, which is, I don't know that we have ever defined what the minimum qualification is for qualified counsel. But it is - some of it has to be that counsel themselves feel adequate to represent a capital defendant.
The question presented in the case is:
I’m going to wager a guess and bet that Justice Thomas will answer the question with a “no.” I’ll revisit this when the opinion is announced. [MG]
- Whether a state's failure to fund counsel for an indigent defendant for five years, particularly where failure was the direct result of the prosecution's choice to seek the death penalty, should be weighed against the state for speedy trial purposes?