If you were not glued to C-SPAN on Saturday, June 29, you might have missed the fun footage of a judicial conference for the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals that took place in West Virginia.
Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts was there being interviewed and said that “my favorite case from the past term” was a case about our local hero, Fane Lozman.
Lozman has been making headlines since the mid-aughts, when he was living on his houseboat in Riviera Beach and stood up for average joes by blocking a developer’s plan to take over the city marina. City leaders retaliated against him in myriad and unbelievable fashions, most destructively by having his houseboat towed away and destroyed.
Lozman fought back, arguing that his home should never have been seized; the maritime law that was used to seize it should not have applied, because the houseboat was a “floating home” and not a “vessel.” His case made it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which had to clarify the distinction.
The case came up this past Saturday, when Judge Harvie Wilkinson of the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals interviewed Chief Justice Roberts on C-SPAN. Wilkinson sat in his armchair, pressed his fingers together, and remembered how Chief Justice Rehnquist would begin each session with a quotation. He went on to repeat the lines from Sir Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in County Churchyard”:
Full many a gem of purest ray serene,
The dark unfathomed caves of ocean bear:
Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,
And waste its sweetness on the desert air.
Wilkinson said “the blushing flowers that were blushing unseen” were some of the Supreme Court cases that didn’t make headlines or merit the broad public discussion that some of the marquee cases did yet were nonetheless extremely important in the lives of ordinary Americans. “I wonder if If there were any blushing flowers out there in the desert from past term that went unnoticed?”
Roberts replied that “there always are” — from 77 cases heard by the court, only half a dozen are buzzworthy. Then he added:
“The littler ones can be very fascinating. My favorite from the past term is a case called Lozman which involved the question of admiralty jurisdiction and what counts as a vessel. The law has a very broad definition of what a vessel is. The way things develop in the law is you have something that seems to fit not comfortably in either category. Depending on which side you were on, [Lozman’s houseboat was] either a floating home or a houseboat.
“It was a residence that was attached to shore more or less permanently, but which could be disengaged, and would float, and could be towed around. Again, the issue was whether it counted as a vessel or not. It was one of those cases where a picture was worth a thousand words. If you look at a picture of the thing on the water, it looks like a house that got swept into the ocean rather than a boat that got swept away.
“The court did hold that it was not a vessel… but we had a lot of fun with it looking at the different characteristics, posing a lot of hypotheticals.”
He added: “We had a bankruptcy case that was very surprising… I don’t know if that counts as a blushing flower or not.”
Lozman said John Roberts’ words made his day.