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Coast Guard illegally lets private group grant, deny licenses

Matthew Hight

A man who has piloted large cargo ships around the globe is suing the Coast Guard because he was denied a pilot’s license to run the large vessels through the St. Lawrence Seaway to the Great Lakes, even though he’d done such trips without incident some 200 times already.

And it wasn’t even the Coast Guard that denied Matthew Hight the license. It was the St. Lawrence Seaway Pilots’ Association, which is a private, for-profit company.

That’s the problem, explains the lawsuit filed in federal court by the Institute for Justice on Hight’s behalf.

“The U.S. Constitution says that the government cannot delegate its power to private, self-interested groups,” said IJ Senior Attorney Anthony Sanders. “The Coast Guard needs to end the constitutional abuses, follow the regulations and give Capt. Hight the opportunity to get his license and work in the profession of his calling.”

The legal team says the pilots association “concocted” reasons to reject Hight because its officials apparently didn’t like him.

They alleged he used “strong language” once while demanding quiet on the bridge so he could give instructions. And they charged that a tug that once had helped one of Hight’s ships maneuver had had a collision with a buoy.

A video describing the problem:

Hight has been a merchant mariner for two decades, and for eight of those years he piloted ships globally.

When he decided to return to the United States to be closer to his family, he set as his goal piloting up and down the Seaway into the Great Lakes.

He was required by the Coast Guard to train with the association and get a license.

But after “disagreements” with the financial practices of the association’s leadership, those leaders blocked Hight’s application.

The Coast Guard then refused to provide an appeal process.

His concerns about the pilots association included that the president refused to provide access to the group’s financial records. And to become a pilot, Hight was told he would have to “buy into” the group at a cost of $200,000.

“Captain Hight justifiably believes that the negative recommendation by the association was retaliation for voicing his concerns,” the institute said. “The two reasons given by the association were flimsy. The first being that he used swear words in an interaction with a ship commander. This incident began when Captain Hight called for silence on the bridge so that he could give clear commands to the helmsman. The second referenced an incident that Hight was neither responsible for nor aware of. A tugboat was damaged by a channel buoy after it had assisted a vessel piloted by Captain Hight.”

Hight said it’s “absurd that the association says that using strong language is a reason to keep me from piloting ships.”

“There are some stereotypes about sailors that are true, and no one on a ship is actually offended by swear words,” he said. “The association just made up reasons to stop me from getting a license and it is a shame that the Coast Guard accepts their word without any questions.

“I’m fighting against this unconstitutional system, both for myself and for others who want the opportunity to pilot on the Great Lakes.”

The lawsuit by IJ was filed in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida.

It contends the Coast Guard illegally delegated government power to the private company.

It also claims the orders that he become part of the pilots association violates the First Amendment protections for due process.

“Government agencies cannot interpret their regulations so broadly that it makes the written rules basically meaningless,” said IJ Constitutional Law Fellow Ben Rump. “The law doesn’t empower the Coast Guard to delegate its responsibility to a private association. We hope that the federal courts will rule that Captain Hight has a constitutional right to continue down the path to getting his license and affirm that government agencies have to follow their own rules.”