A kooky South Florida story made the big time in front of the Supreme Court on Monday, as justices heard arguments in a case that will decide whether Fane Lozman’s floating home — targeted for removal from a marina by Riviera Beach and towed away by U.S. Marshalls — was a building or a boat.
The court’s decision will have wide-ranging effects. From SCOTUSblog:
While the Justices were having boatloads of fun with the Lozman case, they knew that the outcome of it will shape maritime commerce in a very important way… it would be quite important if the Court could say — once and for all — what the word “vessel” means.
At times, though, the justices sounded like they were playing in a bathtub, deciding whether their rubber ducky was a duck or a boat.
The city’s lawyer, David Frederick, tried to convince the justices that a boatlike thing that floats on water is a boat, plain and simple. But the justices picked away at that supposition, according to the AP:
Justices didn’t accept lawyer David C. Frederick’s argument for the city that the current description of a vessel as something that “floats, moves, and carries people or things on water” was clear enough to carry the day.
An inner tube or inflatable raft would fit that description, Chief Justice John Roberts started. Justice Stephen Breyer then held up his coffee mug.
“A cup doesn’t float,” Frederick said. “Oh, well, this is lighter than you think,” Breyer retorted.
“How about a garage door?” added Justice Sonia Sotomayor.
Then Justice Elena Kagan jumped in: “Paste a couple of pennies on the inner tube. Now it carries things.”
Careful: that coffee mug you’re holding could become subject to federal admiralty law as it floats in your dirty dishwater. Breyer also contemplated the boatish status of a styrofoam couch, floating upon the swells.
A key element of Lozman’s argument is that his floating home wouldn’t have done much good as a moving vessel: it didn’t have working engines or steering, it was connected to the electrical grid, and he paid property taxes.
Lozman’s lawyer, Jeffrey L. Fisher, argued that his house clearly wasn’t a vessel, because it was dependent on the land to work properly. “A floating home cannot function if it’s not tied to land. It doesn’t matter how many amps we want to fight about. It’s whether it needs that power from land, whether it needs those connections to land. A houseboat, like any other vessel, can fully function away from port,” Fisher said.
“It’s kind of a fun case for [the justices],” Stanford Law School Professor Jeffrey Fisher said, according to McClatchy. “They played with the hypotheticals.” Justice Anthony Kennedy sarcastically referred to Lozman’s ill-fated boxlike home as a “magnificent structure.”
While we await their decision, we can enjoy the idea of Supreme Court justices back at home, repeating that old grade-school experiment where you fold up a piece of paper and put coins in it and ask, as many generations of humans have done before, the eternal question: will it float?