Sunday, May 4, 2008

Mariner Justice, the Coast Guard and the NTSB

Most mariners are required to obtain and hold a Merchant Mariners Document (MMD) and/or a license in order to work on the water. These documents and licenses are obtained from the U.S. Coast Guard and the Coast Guard also has the power and authority, via Administrative Law Judges (ALJ), to revoke these documents.

In June of last year the Baltimore Sun published an article "Justice Capsized" which brought to light some mariners perceptions that the Coast Guards Administrative Law system was stacked against them. The Sun explains:
"Hundreds of tugboat captains, charter fishermen and other professional mariners face charges of negligence or misconduct every year under the U.S. Coast Guard's administrative court system, a forum established to be fair and impartial, like any other court.

The stakes are high for mariners. Even a temporary suspension can often end a career."
The Sun article seems to confirm that the system is, in fact, stacked against mariners who face Administrative Law Judges. The article immediately drew the attention of a powerful Baltimore Congressman, Sun article here. The Coast Guard, in response, points out that action is taken against a mariners documents only in the most serious of cases, and defends the system.

Peter Stinson at, in response to the controversy explains the system here: Just who is Chief Administrative Law, and links to this post by a former judge at The Full Story

Now, this year, in an effort to reform the system congress, is considering shifting this authority from the Coast Guard to the NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board ) but Joseph Keefe, Managing Editor of THE MARITIME EXECUTIVE, in an article, Be Careful What You Wish For thinks this might be throwing out the baby with the bath water and points to the treatment of Cosco Busan pilot John Cota by the NTSB.

I don't know if the NTSB would do a better job then the Coast Guard in regards to disciplining errant mariners. My own (peripheral) experience (so far, knock on wood) is that the Coast Guard system, in minor cases, is fair, but justice is more difficult to obtain under the heavy public demands for a scapegoat after an major incident, particularly if the accident results in damage to the marine environment.

I do know that when, after the Cosco Busan incident, I saw how Pilot John Cota was being treated by the press and federal authorities, I called the folks at MOPS and got license insurance.

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