Federal Maritime Commission v. South Carolina State Ports Authority

PETITIONER:Federal Maritime Commission
RESPONDENT:South Carolina State Ports Authority
LOCATION:South Carolina State Ports Authority

DOCKET NO.: 01-46
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit

CITATION: 535 US 743 (2002)
ARGUED: Feb 25, 2002
DECIDED: May 28, 2002

Paul D. Clement – Argued the cause for the United States, supporting the petitioner
Phillip C. Hughey – Argued the cause for the petitioner Federal Maritime Commission
Warren L. Dean, Jr. – Argued the cause for the respondent

Facts of the case

South Carolina Maritime Services, Inc. (Maritime Services), asked the South Carolina State Ports Authority (SCSPA) five times for permission to berth a cruise ship, the M/V Tropic Sea, at the SCSPA’s port facilities in Charleston, South Carolina. Some cruises offered by Maritime Services would allow passengers to participate in gambling activities while on board. The SCSPA repeatedly denied Maritime Services’ requests, contending that it had an established policy of denying berths in the Port of Charleston to vessels whose primary purpose was gambling. Maritime Services file a complaint with the Federal Maritime Commission (FMC), arguing that SCSPA violated the Shipping Act by its denials. The complaint was referred to an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ), who found that the SCSPA, as an arm of the State of South Carolina, was entitled to sovereign immunity and thus dismissed the complaint. Reversing on its own motion, the FMC concluded that state sovereign immunity covers proceedings before judicial tribunals, not Executive Branch agencies. In reversing, Court of Appeals fund that the proceedings were an adjudication and thus subject to state sovereign immunity.


Does a State’s sovereign immunity preclude the Federal Maritime Commission from adjudicating a private party’s complaint that a state-run port has violated the Shipping Act of 1984?

Media for Federal Maritime Commission v. South Carolina State Ports Authority

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument – February 25, 2002 in Federal Maritime Commission v. South Carolina State Ports Authority

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement – May 28, 2002 in Federal Maritime Commission v. South Carolina State Ports Authority

William H. Rehnquist:

The opinion of the Court in No. 01-46 Federal Maritime Commission versus South Carolina State Ports Authority will be announced by Justice Thomas.

Clarence Thomas:

This case comes to us on a writ of certiorari to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit.

South Carolina Maritime Services Inc. filed a complaint with petition of Federal Maritime Commission aleging that respondent, South Carolina State Ports Authority had violated the shipping act by refusing to provide Maritime services cruise ship to Tropic Sea, berthing space at respondent’s port facilities in Charleston, South Carolina.

After Maritime Services complaint was referred to an administrative law judge, respondent filed a motion to dismiss arguing that States sovereign immunity barred the Commission from adjudicating Maritime Services complaint.

The administrative law judge agreed but the Commission decided on its motion to review the administrative law judge’s ruling and reversed, reasoning that the doctrine of State sovreign immunity was not meant to cover adjudicative proceedings before administrative agencies such as the Commission.

Respondent then filed a petition for review and the Court of Appeals reversed the Commission’s determination holding that sovreign immunity precluded the Commission from adjudicating Maritime Services complaint.

In an opinion filed with the Clerk today, we affirmed the judgment of the Court of Appeals.

We have previously observed that the central purpose of State sovreign immunity is to accord states to dignity that is consistent with their status as sovreign entities, and if the Framers thought it an impermissible affront to a State’s dignity to be required to answer the complaint of private parties in federal courts, we cannot imagine that would have found it acceptable to compel a State to do exactly the same thing before the administrative tribunal of a federal agency.

A review of the rules governing the Commission’s judicative proceedings reveals that the similarities between such proceedings and civil litigation in Federal Courts are overwhelming.

The affront to a State’s dignity does not lessen when an adjudication takes place in an administrative tribunal as opposed to an Article III Court.

In both instances, a State is required to defend itself in an adversarial proceeding against a private party before an impartial federal officer.

Moreover, because Congress is prohibited from exercising its Article I powers to abrogate State sovreign immunity in Article III judicial proceedings, it would be quite strange if Congress were allowed to use those same Article I powers to create Court like administrative tribunals where sovreign immunity would not apply.

Justices Stevens and Breyer have filed dissenting opinions.

Stephen G. Breyer:

Justice Stevens, Justice Souter, Justice Ginsburg and I dissent.

We have dissented frequently from the Court’s interpretation of the constitution’s structural prohibitions, those involving sovreign immunity, the Eleventh Amendment, the commoners clause in Section 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Today’s case indicates why we continue to do so.

The case involves an ordinary independent executive branch agency which seeks through ordinary agency adjudicated proceeding to determine, at the request of a private party, whether a State instrumentality or court authority has violated a federal statute.

The majority finds in the agencies use of adjudication, a constitutional analogy to other proceedings, court proceeding which the Eleventh Amendment, for example, says that a private party cannot bring against the State, but constitutionally speaking, we think that analogy is inadequate.

Agency adjudication differs in detail from Court adjudication, that is why we call agency adjudication quasi adjudicative.

The agency cannot enforce the law itself but has to go to Court in the name of the United States to do so.

The proceedings take place in the Executive Branch of Government, not the Judicial Branch which is subject to the Eleventh Amendment and one confined other at least equally compelling, I would say more compelling, constitutional analogies that work just the other way, for example in a private citizen’s First Amendment right to ask the Government including the Executive Branch of Government to readress a grievance including a grievance against the State.

Where then does the majority find its contitutional prohibition?

Not in the constitution’s text which it concedes there is not a word about.

Not in history, not in tradition, rather the majority appeals to the constitution’s federalism related purposes, purposes embodied in such non-textual phrases as State dignity, plan of the convention, system of federalism.

These phrases of course are highly abstract and compared to other general constitutional phrases, words like liberty or due process of law, they suffer from the disadvantage that they do not actually appear in the constitution.

Regardless, why does one, a private citizen’s complaint to an administrative agency asking has the State violated the law followed by an agency adjudication, why does that upfront a State’s dignity any more then; two, the identical complaint made to the identical agency followed by agency rule making; or three, the identical complaint made to Congress followed by congressional hearings in enactment of a law.

The only answer to these questions that I can find in the court’s opinion lies in the “great significance” — and those are the court’s words that the court attaches to the absence in the 18th century of 20th century administrative agencies.

An absence that I find hardly surprising.

In taking this approach in the court’s readiness to find in silences, in 18th century absences, in broad interpretation, in formal reasoning from highly abstract nontextual concepts.

In finding that way of prohibition that forbids other branches of the Federal Government from acting.

Stephen G. Breyer:

In taking that approach, the Court risks departing from a constitutional understanding that it is held for more than 60 years, that the constitution forbids an overly restrictive judicial interpretation of its structural constraints, an interpretation that denies the Legislative in Executive Branches, the flexibility they need to deal effectively with modern, social, technological, and commercial problem.

An interpretation that impedes the constitution’s basic effort to create democratic government that can translate the people’s will into effective public action.

Indeed, the majority’s holding today may well impede the Federal Government as it seeks to enforce against State employers laws designed to protect worker health and safety, as it seeks to enforce against State hospital’s legal procedures designed to protect patients, as it seeks to enforce against State commercial or port authority’s laws and procedures designed to protect commerce or for that matter as Justice Stevens pointed out in the Prince case, to protect national security.

At the same time, the majority’s holding may require the building of larger federal bureaucracy.

Quite the opposite of the decentralizing purposes of the constitutional principles that it seeks to implement.

For these reasons and for others discussed in the opinion, in my dissenting opinion, unless and until the consequences of the Court’s approach prove anodyne as I hope, rather than randomly destructive, as I fear, I shall continue to dissent.