330 U.S. 552 (1947), 291, Kotch v. Board of River Port Pilot Commissioners

Docket Nº:No. 291
Citation:330 U.S. 552, 67 S.Ct. 910, 91 L.Ed. 1093
Party Name:Kotch v. Board of River Port Pilot Commissioners
Case Date:March 31, 1947
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 552

330 U.S. 552 (1947)

67 S.Ct. 910, 91 L.Ed. 1093



Board of River Port Pilot Commissioners

No. 291

United States Supreme Court

March 31, 1947

Argued February 5, 6, 1947



1. The pilotage law of Louisiana requires that ocean-going vessels, other than coastal vessels whose pilotage is subject exclusively to federal regulation, shall be piloted through the Mississippi River approaches to the port of New Orleans, and in the port, only by pilots appointed by the Governor. Pilots so appointed have the status of state officers. Only those are eligible for appointment as state pilots who, in addition to other specific qualifications, have served an apprenticeship of six months under state pilots and who are certified by a Board composed of state pilots. Appellants, experienced in piloting coastal vessels on the river and in the port, and possessing all of the statutory qualifications except the six months' apprenticeship under state pilots, were denied appointment as state pilots. Seeking judicial relief, appellants alleged that the incumbent pilots generally selected as apprentices only relatives and friends of incumbents; that the selections were made by electing prospective apprentices into a pilots' association, formed under authority of state law; that, since "membership . . . has

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been closed . . . to all except those having the favor of the pilots," the result is that generally only their relatives and friends have and can become state pilots.

Held: considering the entirely unique institution of pilotage in the light of its history in Louisiana and elsewhere, the pilotage law as so administered does not violate the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Pp. 553-564.

2. The Federal Constitution does not require a state governor, or subordinates responsible to him and removable by him for cause, to select state public servants by competitive tests or by any other particular method of selection. Pp. 563-564.

3. The method adopted by Louisiana for the selection of pilots is not without relation to the objective of securing for the State and others interested the safest and most efficiently operated pilotage system practicable. P. 564.

209 Lo. 737, 25 So.2d 527, affirmed.

A suit brought by appellants in a state court challenging the validity under the Federal Constitution of the pilotage law of Louisiana was dismissed. The Supreme Court of the State affirmed. 209 La. 737, 25 So.2d 527. An appeal was taken to this Court. Affirmed, p. 564.

BLACK, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE BLACK delivered the opinion of the Court.

Louisiana statutes provide in general that all seagoing vessels moving between New Orleans and foreign ports must be navigated through the Mississippi River approaches to the port of New Orleans and within it, exclusively by pilots who are State Officers.1 New State pilots

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are appointed by the governor only upon certification of a State Board of River Pilot Commissioners, themselves pilots.2 Only those who have served a six month apprenticeship under incumbent pilots and who possess other specific qualifications may be certified to the governor by the board.3 Appellants here have had at least fifteen years experience in the river, the port, and elsewhere,

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as pilots of vessels whose pilotage was not governed by the State law in question.4 Although they possess all the statutory qualifications except that they have not served the requisite six months apprenticeship under Louisiana officer pilots,5 they have been denied appointment as State pilots. Seeking relief in a Louisiana state court, they alleged that the incumbent pilots, having unfettered discretion [67 S.Ct. 912] under the law in the selection of apprentices, had selected with occasional exception, only the relatives and friends of incumbents; that the selections were made by electing prospective apprentices into the pilots' association, which the pilots have formed by authority of State law;6 that, since "membership . . . is closed to all except those having the favor of the pilots," the result is that only their relatives and friends have and can become State pilots.7 The Supreme Court

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of Louisiana has held that the pilotage law so administered does not violate the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, 209 La. 737, 25 So.2d 527. The case is here on appeal from that decision under 28 U.S.C. § 344(a).

The constitutional command for a state to afford "equal protection of the laws" sets a goal not attainable by the invention and application of a precise formula. This Court has never attempted that impossible task. A law which affects the activities of some groups differently from the way in which it affects the activities of other groups is not necessarily banned by the Fourteenth Amendment. See e.g., Tigner v. State of Texas, 310 U.S. 141, 147. Otherwise, effective regulation in the public interest could not be provided, however essential that regulation might be. For it is axiomatic that the consequence of regulating by setting apart a classified group is that those in it will be subject to some restrictions or receive certain advantages that do not apply to other groups or to all the public. Atchison, T. & S.F. R. Co. v. Matthews, 174 U.S. 96, 106. This selective application of a regulation is discrimination in the broad sense, but it may or may not deny equal protection of the laws. Clearly, it might offend that constitutional safeguard if it rested on grounds wholly irrelevant to achievement of the regulation's objectives. An example would be a law applied to deny a person a right to earn a living or hold any job because of hostility to his particular race, religion, beliefs, or because of any other reason having no rational relation to the regulated activities. See American Sugar Refining Co. v. Louisiana, 179 U.S. 89, 92.

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The case of Yick Wo v. Hopkins, 118 U.S. 356, relied on by appellants, is an illustration of a type of discrimination which is incompatible with any fair conception of equal protection of the laws. Yick Wo was denied the right to engage in an occupation supposedly open to all who could conduct their business in accordance with the law's requirements. He could meet these requirements, but was denied the right to do so solely because he was Chinese. And it made no difference that, under the law as written, Yick Wo would have enjoyed the same protection as all others. Its unequal application to Yick Wo was enough to condemn it. But Yick Wo's case, as other cases have demonstrated, was tested by the language of the law there considered and the administration there shown. Cf. Crowley v. Christensen, 137 U.S. 86, 93-94; Gundling v. Chicago, 177 U.S. 183; New York ex rel. Lieberman v. Van De Carr, 199 U.S. 552; Engel v. O'Malley, 219 U.S. 128, 137. So here we must consider the relationship of the method of appointing pilots to the broad objectives [67 S.Ct. 913] of the entire Louisiana pilotage law. See Grainger v. Douglas Park Jockey Club, 148 F. 513, and cases there cited. In so doing, we must view the appointment system in the context of the historical evolution of the laws and institution of pilotage in Louisiana and elsewhere. Cf. Otis Co. v. Ludlow Mfg. Co., 201 U.S. 140, 154; Jackman v. Rosenbaum, 260 U.S. 22, 31; Bayside Fish Flour Co. v. Gentry, 297 U.S. 422, 428-430. And an important factor in our consideration is that this case tests the right and power of a state to select its own agents and officers. Taylor v. Beckham, 178 U.S. 548; Snowden v. Hughes, 321 U.S. 1, 11-13.

Studies of the long history of pilotage reveal that it is a unique institution, and must be judged as such.8 In

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order to avoid invisible hazards, vessels approaching and leaving ports must be conducted from and to open waters by persons intimately familiar with the local waters. The pilot's job generally requires that he go outside the harbor's entrance in a small boat to meet incoming ships, board them, and direct their course from open waters to the port. The same service is performed for vessels leaving the port. Pilots are thus indispensable cogs in the transportation system of every maritime economy. Their work prevents traffic congestion and accidents which would impair navigation in and to the ports. It affects the safety of lives and cargo, the cost and time expended in port calls, and in some measure, the competitive attractiveness of particular ports. Thus, for the same reasons that governments of most maritime communities have subsidized, regulated, or have themselves operated docks and other harbor facilities and sought to improve the approaches to their ports, they have closely regulated and often operated their ports' pilotage system.9

The history and practice of pilotage demonstrate that, although inextricably geared to a complex commercial economy, it is also a highly personalized calling.10 A pilot does not require a formalized technical education so much as a detailed and extremely intimate, almost intuitive, knowledge of...

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