What is a boat? This will be an actual, serious question tomorrow, the first Monday in October, the day the Supreme Court traditionally starts its new term. With Supreme Court cases, we tend to think of the earthquakes — Brown v. Board of Education, Miranda, Roe v. Wade — but, in truth, very few bob up from judicial obscurity. The press finds most cases dull. There’s no fresh meat controversy; in fact, up to half of all decisions are unanimous, and most avoid the fractious 5-4 split we assume is set in stone.
Such is the boat case. It’s small potatoes, fairly arcane, yet emblematic of the Supreme Court docket. Lozman v. City of Riviera Beach offers up a rich guy whose houseboat was towed away by this Florida city after he disobeyed eviction orders; the marina was slated for development. Lozman claims his “floating home” is not a vessel (can’t steer it, can’t navigate it) and thus not subject to maritime law, and thus was towed illegally. Boat? Not-boat? In the 19th century, the Supreme Court spent much of its time on admiralty law. The more things change . . .