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December 1, 1871


SUR petition for a writ of prohibition to the judge of the District Court of the United States for the Eastern District of New York.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Mr. Justice Swayne stated the case and delivered the opinion of the court.

Mr. Donohue, in support of the petition; Mr. F. A. Wilcox, contra.

Alexander Banter filed his libel in the District Court above named against the owners of the bark Maggie McNiel, wherein it was set forth that the libellant was a pilot of the port of New York, duly licensed under the laws of the State of New York, to pilot vessels by way of Hellgate, and that the respondents were the owners of the bark; that on the 27th day of February, 1870, the libellant, at a point on Long Island Sound, tendered his services and offered to the master of the bark to pilot her by way of Hellgate to the port of New York, and notwithstanding that the libellant was the first pilot so offering his services they were refused; that the bark was a registered vessel foreign to the port of New York, and drew more than thirteen feet of water, so that there became due to the libellant by reason of the premises the sum of twenty-three dollars; that payment has been demanded and refused, and that the premises are within the admiralty and maritime jurisdiction of the United States and of the court to which the libel was addressed.

Process was issued according to the prayer of the libel, and the respondents not being found the vessel was attached. Alexander McNiel intervened as claimant and answered the libel. The answer denies that the action is founded upon a contract civil and maritime. It admits that the bark was sailing under a register, and alleges that she was towed through Hellgate by a steam-tug, which had on board a duly licensed pilot, and that the master of the bark paid for the service. It insists that the cause of action set forth in the libel is not enforceable by the District Court and not within its jurisdiction. Testimony was taken, the cause proceeded to hearing, and the court gave judgment for the amount claimed by the libellant. The respondent applies for a writ of prohibition to restrain the District Court from enforcing the judgment.

The grounds relied upon are:

(1) That the District Court has no jurisdiction of the cause of action stated in the libel.

(2) That no lien existed on the vessel enforceable in a court of admiralty.

The statute of the State upon which the libel was founded is entitled 'An act concerning the Pilots of the Channel of the East River, commonly called Hellgate, passed April 15th, 1847, as amended March 12th, 1860, March 14th, 1865, April 16th, 1868, and April 5th, 1871.' It is a carefully digested system of regulations, covering the whole subject of pilotage, and was designed to secure the appointment of qualified persons and to insure as far as possible the faithful performance of their duties. All appointments are required to be make upon the recommendation of the board of wardens of the port of New York to the governor, the nomination by him to the Senate of the State of the persons so recommended, and their confirmation by that body. Apprentices are required to serve three years, to be examined twice during the last year by the board of wardens, and to serve two years afterwards as deputies before they can be appointed pilots. The seventh section of the act provides that a pilot who shall first tender his services may demand from the master of any vessel of one hundred tons burden and upwards, navigating Hellgate, to whom the tender was made and by whom it was refused, half-pilotage, the amount to be ascertained according to the rules prescribed by the act. Certain exceptions are made which do not affect this case and which it is therefore not necessary to consider.

It is not denied that the case made by the libel is within the statute, nor that it was established by the testimony, but it is insisted that the statute is in conflict with the power of Congress to regulate commerce, and is therefore void.

It must be admitted that pilot regulations are regulations of commerce. A pilot is as much a part of the commercial marine as the hull of the ship and the helm by which it is guided; and half pilotage, as it is called, is a necessary and usual part of every system of such provisions. Pilots are a meritorious class, and the service in which they are engaged is one of great importance to the public. It is frequently full of hardship, and sometimes of peril; night and day, in winter and summer, in tempest and calm, they must be present at their proper places and ready to perform the duties of their vocation. They are thus shut out for the time being from more lucrative pursuits and confined to a single field of employment.

It is not complained anywhere, so far as we are advised, that the sum of what is allowed them is oppressive, or that including half-pilotage, it is more than sufficient to secure the services of persons of proper qualifications and to give them a reasonable compensation.

There is nothing new in provisions of the same character with the one here under consideration. They have obtained from an early period and are to be found in the laws of most commercial states. The obligation on the captain to take a pilot, or be responsible for the damages that might ensue, was prescribed in the Roman Law.*fn1 The Hanseatic ordinances, about 1457, required the captain to take a pilot under the penalty of a mark of gold. The maritime law of Sweden, about 1500, imposed a penalty for refusing a pilot of 150 thalers, one-third to go to the informer, one third to the pilot who offered, and the residue to poor mariners. By the maritime code of the Pays Bas the captain was required to take a pilot under a penalty of 50 reals, and to be responsible for any loss to the vessel. By the maritime law of France, ordinance of Louis the XIV, 1681, corporal punishment was imposed for refusing to take a pilot, and the vessel was to pay 50 livres, to be applied to the use of the marine hospital and to repair damages from stranding. In England (3 George I, ch. 13), if a vessel were piloted by any but a licensed pilot, a penalty of 20 was to be collected for the use of superannuated pilots, or the widows of pilots. In the United States, provisions, more or less stringent, requiring the payment of a sum when no pilot is taken, are to be found in the statutes of ten of the States. The earliest of these statutes is that of Massachusetts of 1783, and the latest, to which our attention has been called, the statute of New York here under consideration.

But, conceding that this provision is a regulation of commerce and within the power of Congress upon that subject, it by no means follows that it involves the constitutional conflict insisted upon by the counsel for the petitioner. In the complex system of polity which prevails in ...

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