Andrew Wimer
Andrew Wimer · December 16, 2021

WASHINGTON—The U.S. Coast Guard refuses to hoist the white flag and register Captain Matthew Hight to pilot ships on the Great Lakes, despite losing a federal lawsuit that forced it to administer a required test—which Hight passed. Now Captain Hight, represented by the Institute for Justice (IJ), has filed a second federal lawsuit demanding that the Coast Guard issue a decision on his application for registration.

“Captain Hight has earned the right to practice his trade, and there is no legitimate reason for the Coast Guard to simply sit on his application, month after month,” said IJ Attorney Jeff Redfern. “Justice delayed is justice denied.”

It is rare that a federal agency loses a lawsuit about how it interprets its own regulations. Yet that is exactly what happened after Captain Hight filed suit in 2019. Hight spent years training to pilot ships on the Great Lakes, a position that is for good reasons restricted and regulated by the Coast Guard. Yet when he applied to take the Coast Guard administered test, he was denied because of opposition from the St. Lawrence Seaway Pilots’ Association, a for-profit business.

The association’s opposition came after Captain Hight raised questions about how the association’s leadership was managing the association’s finances. Among other supposed offenses, the association complained that Captain Hight used profanity while piloting a ship—allegedly swearing like a sailor. As far as the Coast Guard was concerned, the association’s complaint was the end of Hight’s career as a pilot.

Captain Hight’s first lawsuit challenged the constitutionality of the Coast Guard’s delegation of its power to a private association, and it also argued that the Coast Guard’s refusal to let Captain Hight take its exam violated the Coast Guard’s own regulations. D.C. District Court Judge Amit Mehta ordered the Coast Guard to let Captain Hight take the test, and Captain Hight took the exam on June 29, 2021. The Captain passed the test, but—apart from sending a one-line letter congratulating him for his passing score—the Coast Guard has totally failed to take any further action to register him as a pilot even after repeated requests by Hight’s counsel.

The lawsuit filed today asserts that the Coast Guard is violating the Administrative Procedure Act with its unreasonable delay in deciding whether to grant Captain Hight his registration. If the Coast Guard does not act soon, Captain Hight will be unable to start working in time for the start of the shipping season in the spring. 

“I never wanted to sue the Coast Guard, but it is just not right that someone who is fully trained and who passed the test should not be allowed to pilot ships,” said Captain Hight. “I worked for years to achieve the career goal of piloting the Great Lakes. I intend to keep fighting both for myself and so that others can also work toward the same goal and not end up blocked by a self-interested club that benefits from keeping good pilots on the sidelines.”

The Institute for Justice is a non-profit public interest law firm that protects the right to earn an honest living nationwide. Earlier this year, IJ filed suit to protect a New Jersey family farm from ruinous fines in violation of the Administrative Procedure Act. IJ is also representing firefighters in California and a drug counselor in Virginia who have been denied government certifications based only on old, unrelated criminal convictions.