Justice Capsized?

The Coast Guard court system is supposed to be impartial in its handling of charges against mariners. But records suggest the system may be stacked against the seagoers

Sun investigation

June 24, 2007|By Robert Little | Robert Little,SUN REPORTER

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.

But a Sun investigation - based on evidence in federal court records, computer data files, internal memos and the sworn testimony of a former agency judge - suggests that the system isn't merely tough on mariners but is stacked against them.

Judge Jeffie J. Massey, who retired this year, said in a sworn statement that she was told by Chief Judge Joseph N. Ingolia to always rule in the Coast Guard's favor and came under intense pressure when she did not.

Judicial instructions Ingolia circulated privately to other judges have spawned not only outrage in the small community of attorneys who appear before the Coast Guard but also several lawsuits calling the practice illegal rulemaking and obstruction of justice.

A computer analysis of the court's records reveals a striking imbalance in the decisions of its judges, with mariners losing virtually every case before the court over the past eight years. Of more than 6,300 charges filed by Coast Guard investigators since 1999, mariners have prevailed in just 14 cases - three of which the agency is trying to reverse on appeal. Including dismissals, the Coast Guard wins or reaches a settlement in 97 percent of its cases. The Social Security Administration, by comparison, prevails in 43 percent of the cases heard by its administrative law judges.

Ingolia and other officials in the Coast Guard's administrative law office, based in Baltimore, declined to comment at the behest of the U.S. attorney in Louisiana, who is representing them in the suits. A spokeswoman for the agency said any perceived imbalance in the court's decisions is a reflection of the system's efficiency and the Coast Guard's reluctance to pursue weak cases. More than half the cases involve mariners who fail a drug test and acknowledge their guilt.

"These are fair hearings that offer mariners the opportunity to present their cases before impartial administrative law judges," said Cmdr. Jeff Carter, a spokesman at Coast Guard headquarters in Washington, D.C.

One former Coast Guard judge, James Lawson, said he was never coerced by Ingolia or anyone else.

"I always found everyone in Baltimore to be courteous and professional," Lawson said. "They were there to help, not to tell me what to do."

But comments from Massey, and details spelled out in interviews and a complex matrix of court records, raise questions about the integrity of the Coast Guard system and could cast into doubt administrative actions brought against civilian captains, engineers and other seafarers around the country, several of whom are seeking redress in federal court. Among The Sun's findings:

In two internal memos obtained by The Sun, Ingolia issued private instructions telling other judges how to rule, a practice legal experts and judges from other agencies call inappropriate, and a possible violation of federal laws that require judicial rules to be published and subject to challenge.

Attorneys on the chief judge's staff and an attorney on the commandant's staff who helps write appellate decisions have met privately with prosecutors about open cases, according to internal e-mails and court records, an ethical breach that defense attorneys and legal experts are calling obstruction of justice.

Records at the Coast Guard's docket center in Baltimore are rife with complaints from defense lawyers who describe hostile hearings, with judges behaving as advocates for the Coast Guard and taking over the interrogation of mariners.

One judge expressed fear for his job if he didn't rule in favor of the Coast Guard, despite his belief that the mariner had offered compelling evidence of his innocence, according to court records.

Careers at risk

While the court system handles administrative matters rather than criminal charges and jail terms, rulings of the administrative law judges, or ALJs, are often vital to the nation's 200,000 captains, engineers and crew members, who need a Coast Guard-issued license or other document in order to work.

The charges are investigated and prosecuted by uniformed Coast Guard officers. The harshest penalty a Coast Guard judge can hand down is revocation of those credentials, but even a brief suspension can cause turmoil in the life of someone who has built a career working on the water.

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