Another Interesting Case That You’ve Never Heard Of

I am in the process of revising my admiralty syllabus, and one case that I’m going to teach next year is Kotch v. Board of River Boat Pilots Com’rs for the Port of New Orleans 330 U.S. 552 (1947).  It’s a fascinating case and I thought I’d give you a summary.

Large ships that enter a harbor or a major river generally must be steered by a pilot.  A pilot is a local person who knows where all of the sandbars, rocks, and channels are in a particular locale.  The captain of the vessel lacks this knowledge and would founder or crash without a pilot in command. Louisiana had a law providing that a new pilot could only be licensed if a current pilot took him on as an apprentice.  Some people who were denied an apprenticeship sued claiming that the pilots in the state were only hiring their relatives and friends.  This kind of cronyism, it was alleged, violated the Equal Protection Clause.

The Supreme Court, in a 5-4 vote, rejected this claim.  Justice Hugo Black wrote for the majority and said that there was a rational basis for allowing pilots broad discretion to select their apprentices because “[a] pilot does not require a formalized technical education so much as a detailed and extremely intimate, almost intuitive, knowledge of the weather, waterways and conformation of the harbor or river which he serves.”  As a result, “the advantages of early experience under friendly supervision in the locality of the pilot’s training, the benefits to morale and esprit de corps which family and neighborly tradition might contribute, the close association in which pilots must work and live in their pilot communities and on the water, and the discipline and regulation which is imposed to assure the State competent pilot service after appointment, might have prompted the legislature to permit Louisiana pilot officers to select those which whom they would serve.”

Justice Rutledge dissented and said that “[i]f Louisiana were to provide by statute in haec verba that only members of John Smith’s family would be eligible for the public calling of pilot, I have no doubt that the statute on its face would infringe the Fourteenth Amendment.” The Court’s decision approves “as constitutional state regulation [a statute] which makes admission to the ranks of pilots turn finally on consanguinity. Blood is, in effect, made the crux of selection.”

This is one of the few Supreme Court cases that directly addresses the legality of nepotism, and I think that it deserves further study.

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6 Responses

  1. Joe Miller says:

    Seems like a thinly disguised Dormant Commerce Clause violation, no?

  2. Joseph Slater says:

    I’m not sure this case is all that obscure. It’s in the Employment Law casebook I use (Rothstein, Liebman). Having said that, it is an interesting case indeed.

  3. It’s also discussed in Pamela S. Karlan, Old Reasons, New Reasons, No Reasons, 27 Ga. St. U. L. Rev. 873 (2011).

  4. Gerard Magliocca says:

    Well, I didn’t mean that I was the only person that has ever heard of the case. I just meant that it’s relatively obscure.

  5. Joseph Slater says:

    Fair enough.

  6. Peter says:

    Actually, Robert Post used to teach this case every year in his Con Law II class at Boalt Hall. I had no idea how much (or little) it is commonly taught in such courses, but for me it was the paradigmatic “rational basis” case that showed why you want to get above r.b. review.