A listing court

June 26, 2007

The right to a fair trial is such a fundamental freedom in this country that the charges leveled against the U.S. Coast Guard's administrative court system merit serious attention, at the very least. The single most damning piece of evidence is the sworn statement made by a retired Coast Guard judge who says she was told to always rule in the government's favor. Imagine a U.S. District Court adjudicating civil cases under the same guidelines. Impeachment proceedings couldn't be arranged fast enough.

Indeed, the allegations by Judge Jeffie J. Massey concerning the Baltimore-based court that considers civil cases involving the nation's 200,000 civilian mariners suggest behavior so antithetical to the basic principle of due process that it's tempting to dismiss them altogether as too incredible. But as Sun reporter Robert Little recently detailed, an independent analysis of court decisions reveals a system that almost never rules against the Coast Guard.

The numbers don't lie: Of the roughly 6,300 charges filed by Coast Guard officials over the past eight years, the respondents have prevailed in just 14 (including three currently under appeal). And while Coast Guard victories in the service's own court should be expected - rank-and-file prosecutors win 9 out of 10 times in federal court as well - the official explanation that the Coast Guard doesn't pursue weak cases doesn't quite explain this overwhelming result.

At minimum, there is ample evidence that Coast Guard administrative law judges and their staff are too cozy with investigators. And the fact that the system's chief judge, Joseph N. Ingolia, dispatched private memos to his judges to amend court procedures is even more problematic.

In one such case, Judge Ingolia instructed judges not to accept the ingestion of hemp oil as a defense against a positive marijuana test - not long after a Baltimore seaman indicated that he would use that very defense. There were no counter-arguments, no input from defense attorneys or opportunity to challenge, just a blanket policy decision from the chief judge.

It's not enough that these actions have triggered civil lawsuits. Rep. Elijah E. Cummings' call for a hearing to explore possible improprieties is more than appropriate under the circumstances. Administrative law judges may not throw people in jail, but adverse rulings can have profound effects on careers nonetheless. Captains, engineers and other members of the merchant marine have a right to an impartial judge.

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