Andrew Wimer
Andrew Wimer · March 6, 2019

Arlington, Va.—Captain Matthew Hight was on the verge of getting his license to pilot commercial vessels on the St. Lawrence Seaway and Lake Ontario, but the U.S. Coast Guard refused to let him proceed after a for-profit association concocted reasons to deny him the right to work. What was one of those reasons? That he once used strong language while asking for quiet on the bridge. Now, Captain Hight is teaming up with the Institute for Justice (IJ) to sue the Coast Guard, asking the service to stop delegating its power to the self-interested association, follow its written regulations and allow him to continue to apply for his license.

Watch a video about Captain Hight’s case against the Coast Guard here.

Captain Hight has been a merchant mariner for more than 20 years, with eight of those years spent commanding ships all over the world. But life at sea takes its toll, and he decided to return to the United States and seek employment closer to his family. Piloting on the Great Lakes is highly regulated, and Captain Hight was required by the Coast Guard to train with the St. Lawrence Seaway Pilots’ Association, a for-profit business. After disagreements with the financial practices of the association’s leadership, Captain Hight was given a negative recommendation by the association. With no meaningful way to contest the recommendation with the Coast Guard, Hight has seen his training go to waste.

“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 Captain Hight the opportunity to get his license and work in the profession of his calling.”

Initially, Captain Hight’s training with the association went smoothly. In May 2016, the association recommended to the Coast Guard that he receive a temporary registration, allowing him to man ships on Lake Ontario and earn a full pilot’s salary. However, as he became more acquainted with the association, he began to question its practices to some of his fellow mariners. This included concern that the president did not provide the association’s members, including the treasurer, access to the association’s financial records. To become a pilot, Captain Hight would be required to “buy into” the association at a cost of nearly $200,000.

Captain Hight justifiably believes that the negative recommendation by the association was retaliation for voicing his concerns. 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.

After the association issued its report, the Coast Guard ended Captain Hight’s effort to get his license. While Captain Hight appealed to the Coast Guard, the service refused to reconsider the association’s recommendation or investigate the validity of the allegations.

“It’s absurd that the association says that using strong language is a reason to keep me from piloting ships,” said Captain Matthew Hight. “There are some stereotypes about sailors that are true and no one on a ship is actually offended by swear words. 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 federal lawsuit, filed this morning in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida, where Captain Hight currently lives, maintains that the Coast Guard has unconstitutionally delegated government power to the association. It also claims that the Coast Guard’s requirement that Captain Hight join the association and get its approval is a violation of his First Amendment rights and his due process rights. The suit calls on the Coast Guard to follow its written regulations and allow Captain Hight to continue the process of getting his pilot’s license.

“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.”