The House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly yesterday to dismantle the U.S. Coast Guard's Baltimore-based administrative law system amid charges of bias in its handling of cases against civilian mariners.
Part of a sweeping $8.4 billion spending bill that now goes to the Senate, the action strips the Coast Guard of its role in hearing negligence and misconduct cases against seafarers and would transfer those cases to the National Transportation Safety Board in October.
The move follows an investigation by The Sun last year showing that mariners prevailed in only 14 of about 6,300 charges brought over eight years. Most of the cases were settled or resulted in guilty pleas without reaching a courtroom, and some were dismissed, but overall Coast Guard prosecutors had a 97 percent success rate.
Under the existing system, the Coast Guard is responsible for both prosecuting cases and providing an impartial forum for mariners. By separating those functions, lawmakers said yesterday, they hoped to guarantee judicial independence and restore credibility to the process.
"Mariners who are unsafe should not be on our nation's waterways," said Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat who first proposed the change. "But fair treatment must be assured to all individuals in any legal proceeding, and the transfer of the Coast Guard's ALJ [administrative law judge] function to the NTSB will avoid even the potential appearance of unfairness."
"People, when they come into a forum, can accept when they lose as long as they believe that they've lost fairly," said Rep. Steven C. LaTourette, a Republican from Ohio. "That's what this is about."
The report in The Sun also detailed claims from retired Coast Guard Administrative Law Judge Jeffie J. Massey, who said she was told by Chief Judge Joseph N. Ingolia to always rule in the agency's favor regardless of the evidence presented in her courtroom. She also claimed that a fellow judge told her that he feared for his job if he didn't rule in favor of the Coast Guard.
Massey, who testified before Congress last year and whose story was invoked on the House floor yesterday, applauded the move.
"It's a good day for the mariners," Massey said. "I'm happy to see that Congressman Cummings and the other members of Congress cared enough about the rights of these guys to actually listen."
Coast Guard officials have denied that Ingolia tried to influence Massey or any other judge and say the system's lopsided victory rate is largely a consequence of a high percentage of failed drug tests by mariners.
But while opposing efforts to strip away the service's judicial powers, Coast Guard officials have also acknowledged a need for reform. In March, they offered a plan to Congress to "improve the effectiveness, consistency and responsiveness" of the system.
In the plan, Coast Guard officials pledged to close judges' offices and courtrooms that are in Coast Guard facilities and move them to neutral locations. They also said they would stop the practice of using judges to train Coast Guard prosecutors and announced plans to make information about proceedings available on the Internet.
In response to claims that Ingolia spread judicial rules through private memos to other judges - a claim the Coast Guard denied in court - the service pledged to implement a new "good guidance policy" and publish all guidance documents on the system's Web site.
The service also said it is moving to "improve the effectiveness and transparency of the system to investigate complaints of misconduct by or disability of ALJs."
But House members were not impressed, and the move to dismantle the administrative law system was attached to the Coast Guard's broad spending bill late Tuesday.
A handful of lawmakers opposed the measure yesterday, saying they feared it would leave the Coast Guard without enough judges to handle disputes related to the pending issue of 850,000 Transportation Worker Identification Cards. The Coast Guard expects to hear those cases under contract with the Transportation Security Administration, just as it hears cases for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and other agencies that don't have their own administrative law system.
"I'm concerned about the expertise being removed at a time when we need it," said Rep. Dan Lungren, a California Republican.
But their opposition was withdrawn after Cummings and others assured them that the Coast Guard would still have resources to handle non-Coast Guard cases, which make up about 20 percent of the agency's work.
The administrative law system in Baltimore employs 26 people, including seven judges in offices around the country, and the bill's potential impact on them is unclear. Coast Guard officials said many of the 11 employees in Baltimore might lose their jobs, but some of the office is expected to be maintained if the service continues hearing cases for other agencies.
Attorneys who practice before the Coast Guard administrative law judges applauded yesterday's vote.
"Anything's better than what we have now," said J. Mac Morgan, a Louisiana attorney who has represented several mariners before Coast Guard administrative law judges.
Lawmakers moved to soften a provision that had attracted a veto threat from President Bush, voting to let the Coast Guard rely on state and local security forces to protect the waterways around liquefied natural gas facilities from terrorist attacks. Bush threatened a veto Tuesday, saying requirements that the Coast Guard provide security at private LNG terminals amounts to an "unwarranted subsidy."
But the bill's more immediate future rests in negotiations with the Senate, which is considering a similar bill. Rep. James L. Oberstar, chairman of the House Transportation Committee, said he hopes to have a bill passed through both chambers and on Bush's desk by early summer.
Besides dismantling the ALJ program, the House bill would make several changes that proponents say enhance the Coast Guard's national security role and promote marine safety. It would add 1,500 employees to the service, for instance, for a total of 47,000. It would require commercial fishing boats to have double hulls around their fuel tanks, and it would require ships to install ballast water treatment systems designed to kill invasive marine species, such as zebra mussels, that are often transported into the Great Lakes and other waterways.
The bill mandates new crime reporting requirements for cruise ships and establishes marine safety as an explicit responsibility of the Coast Guard. It passed the House in a 395-7 vote.
"It's the first bill to provide adequate resources to an agency that has been underfunded for years," said Rep. Bennie Thompson, a Mississippi Democrat and chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security.
Yet Coast Guard officials have lamented the bill as an intrusion. Adm. Thad W. Allen, the Coast Guard commandant, said in a statement: "I have an obligation to the public and our Coast Guard men and women to ensure the Coast Guard retains the necessary discretion and flexibility to meet our mission demands in an often-changing, dangerous operating environment. This bill, in its current form, does not do that."
AT A GLANCE
What: House approves bill that strips Coast Guard courts of responsibility for hearing negligence and misconduct cases against mariners.
Why: Former judges testified that they were pressured to rule in the Coast Guard's favor, and a Sun investigation found that of about 6,300 charges over eight years, mariners prevailed in only 14. Most cases were settled or resulted in guilty pleas before reaching court.
Coast Guard prosecution success rate: 97 percent.
What's next: Bill moves to the Senate.