Important cert petition about the constitutional law of boats

March 7

One of my more obscure constitutional law interests is the constitutional law of boats. The original Constitution actually contains a surprising number of provisions about them:

Art. I, sec. 9, cl. 6, pt. 1: No preference shall be given by any regulation of commerce or revenue to the ports of one state over those of another:

Art. I, sec. 9, cl. 6, pt. 2: nor shall vessels bound to, or from, one state, be obliged to enter, clear or pay duties in another.

Art. I, sec. 10: No state shall, without the consent of Congress, lay any duty of tonnage.

(And that’s without mentioning the provisions specifically about navies!) There is probably a deeper point to make here, but for now suffice it to say that sometimes the Founders made a lot of rules about something we don’t pay as much attention to anymore.

But the centrality of boats to constitutional law is not just from the founding. One of the most important (and controversial) judicial opinions construing the 14th Amendment to the Constitution is the Slaughterhouse Cases. There, the Court concluded that very very very few things qualify as “privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States,” except a very small list of things, like “the rights secured by the thirteenth and fifteenth articles of amendment,” and the rights:

to come to the seat of government to assert any claim he may have upon that government, to transact any business he may have with it, to seek its protection, to share its offices, to engage in administering its functions. ….

to demand the care and protection of the Federal government over his life, liberty, and property when on the high seas or within the jurisdiction of a foreign government. ….

to peaceably assemble and petition for redress of grievances, the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus, are rights of the citizen guaranteed by the Federal Constitution. …. [and]

The right to use the navigable waters of the United States, however they may penetrate the territory of the several States.

This list of rights is famously mocked as being pretty skimpy, but it turns out that even these rights can be subject to interesting litigation.

In Courtney v. Goltz, a recent case out of the Ninth Circuit, two brothers in Washington state have spent years trying to operate a commercial ferry on Lake Chelan, a navigable water. But this is forbidden by Washington law, which creates a monopoly for one company that’s been there since 1929.

When the Courtneys pointed out that the “right to use the navigable waters of the United States” is one of the few rights actually guaranteed by the Slaughterhouse Cases, the Ninth Circuit responded that while you might have a right to access navigable waters, it does not extend to conduct “driven by economic concerns.”

It seems to me that it is one thing to conclude there’s no general 14th Amendment right to economic liberty; Slaughterhouse says that. It’s something much different to say that even affirmatively-protected rights are left out when they have an economic component. (One shudders to imagine what that court would have done to limit the 13th Amendment’s ban on slavery, which on this logic would not liberate those who wanted to work for a living.)

The Institute for Justice has filed a cert. petition, asking the Supreme Court to consider:

Is the “right to use the navigable waters of the United States” recognized in the Slaughter-House Cases solely a right to navigate such waters or does it also encompass their use to operate a ferry or engage in other economic activity?

[Full disclosure: Almost 10 years ago, I spent a summer working for the Institute for Justice. Unfortunately, I am not involved in Courtney v. Goltz.]

Will Baude is an assistant professor at the University of Chicago Law School, where he teaches constitutional law and federal courts. His recent articles include Rethinking the Federal Eminent Domain Power, (Yale Law Journal, 2013), and Beyond DOMA: State Choice of Law in Federal Statutes, (Stanford Law Review, 2012).
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