Andrew Wimer
Andrew Wimer · March 6, 2024

WASHINGTON—Ten states recently weighed anchor and joined the fleet to stop the U.S. Coast Guard from giving its power to a self-interested private association. The states filed a brief in support of Captain Matthew Hight’s federal lawsuit with the Institute for Justice (IJ) demanding that the Coast Guard issue a decision on his application for registration as a Great Lakes pilot.

Why are one-fifth of the states so interested in a single man’s effort to get a government license? Because the Coast Guard has simply given up its power to determine who qualifies to pilot ships to the St. Lawrence Seaway Pilots’ Association, a for-profit business. The states are concerned that this delegation of power is a dangerous threat to the U.S. Constitution and federalism. The states maintain that “government powers should be exercised by the government.”

“We welcome the support of the states in a suit that asks important questions about who gets to use government power,” said IJ Attorney Jeffrey Redfern. “Private, self-interested groups should never have the power of the government. The Coast Guard cannot keep pretending that its actions are reasonable when they violate basic constitutional principles.”

In 2019, Captain Hight filed his first lawsuit against the Coast Guard, which had denied him the right to take the exam to get his license because of the opposition of the association. That opposition came after Captain Hight raised questions about how the association’s leadership was managing its finances. Among other supposed offenses, the association complained that Captain Hight used profanity while piloting a ship—allegedly swearing like a sailor.

Captain Hight won that suit, took the exam, and passed. But the Coast Guard continued to defer to the association about whether Captain Hight met requirements determined by the association and not in the government’s written regulations. Essentially, the Coast Guard lets the association have the final say in who can pilot ships on public waterways. With its power, the association strictly limits those who can pilot ships, ensuring that the pay rates for its members remain high.