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SeaRiver Maritime Financial Holdings, Inc. v. Mineta

 

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Owners and operator of an oil tanker formerly known as the Exxon Valdez (SeaRiver), challenged the constitutionality of section 5007 of the Oil Pollution Act (OPA).[1] The district court dismissed the complaint and SeaRiver appealed. The Ninth Circuit held that the OPA was not a bill of attainder and did not deny SeaRiver due process or equal protection.

On March 23, 1989, the Exxon Valdez ran aground, spilling approximately eleven million gallons of oil into Prince William Sound. In the wake of the disaster, Congress passed the OPA, increasing penalties and regulations on oil tankers in an attempt to prevent future spills in “environmentally sensitive area[s].”[2] Section 5007 of the OPA excluded from the Prince William Sound any vessel that spilled over one million gallons of oil after March 22, 1989.[3]

SeaRiver first challenged section 5007 as an unconstitutional bill of attainder for inflicting punishment through legislation without the protections of trial.[4] The Ninth Circuit identified a three element test of a bill of attainder comprised of the following: 1) specification of the party, 2) infliction of punishment, and 3) lack of a judicial trial.[5] Addressing the specificity of the OPA, the Ninth Circuit evaluated whether the OPA named Valdez, made its identity readily ascertainable, defined past conduct which identified Valdez, or defined Valdez by “irrevocable acts” it committed.[6] Applying these factors, the Ninth Circuit determined that although the Valdez was not named, exclusion on the basis of the date and size of irreversible oil spills occurring prior to the passage of the OPA made it easily ascertainable that the statute targeted the Valdez. However, while the court
determined that the contested statute included the first characteristic of a bill of attainder, it did not satisfy the second prong of the test.

In evaluating whether section 5007 punished the Valdez, the Ninth Circuit looked to the purpose of the attainder clause and found that it concerned punishment of individuals.[7] Although a bill of attainder concerns punishment of individuals, not vessels, the Ninth Circuit found that a statute affecting individuals by targeting their property could be a bill of attainder. The court considered these three aspects in determining whether the statute inflicted punishment on the Valdez: 1) whether the statute historically would be defined as legislative punishment, 2) whether the statute rationally had nonpunitive purposes, and 3) whether legislative history indicates Congress intended the statute as punishment. Finding that the statute affected the vessel and not the owners or operator as individuals, the Ninth Circuit held that it did not “punish” in the constitutional sense. The court also applied a functional test to determine whether the burden of the statute furthered nonpunitive purposes.[8] Citing the purpose of protecting the sensitive marine environment of Prince William Sound, the Ninth Circuit decided that the passage of section 5007 had a legitimate purpose rather than solely a punitive intent because it addressed the prospective risk of future spills and protected sensitive areas from known offenders in a way that other alternatives could not achieve. Finally, the statute had little legislative history, and none that clearly indicated an intent to punish. Because the statute failed to meet the punishment prong, it did not constitute a bill of attainder.

SeaRiver also argued that section 5007 violated the Due Process Clause[9] because it applied retroactively. The Ninth Circuit relied on the test set out by the Supreme Court in Usery v. Turner Elkhorn Mining Co.,[10] to evaluate the retroactive application of section 5007 by considering the clarity of congressional intent that it should apply retroactively and the rational basis for that intent. Without delving into legislative history, the Ninth Circuit reasoned that previous oil spills could rationally correlate with future conduct and thus reasonably relate to the purpose of protecting Prince William Sound. Based on this rational justification for the statute, the court held that section 5007 did not violate the due process rights of SeaRiver.

Finally, the Ninth Circuit also rejected SeaRiver’s argument that section 5007 denied it equal protection in violation of the Fifth Amendment by singling it out as an unpopular target. Relying on the Supreme Court decision in Village of Willowbrook v. Olech,[11] the Ninth Circuit evaluated whether the Valdez had received intentional differential treatment compared to other similarly situated individuals without a rational basis for that difference in treatment.[12] The court found that it was “reasonable for Congress to single out the Exxon Valdez” and “rational for Congress to use this past disaster as a measure of future performance.”[13] The court thus held that section 5007 did not violate the Equal Protection Clause. In total, the Ninth Circuit affirmed the decision of the district court, dismissing the complaint.

 


[1] Oil Pollution Act of 1990, 33 U.S.C. §§ 2701-2761 (2000).

[2] SeaRiver Maritime Financial Holdings, Inc. v. Mineta (SeaRiver), 309 F.3d 662, 667 (9th Cir. 2002) (quoting 33 U.S.C. § 2732(a)(2)(A)(2000)).

[3] 33 U.S.C. § 2737 (2000).

[4] The Ninth Circuit relied on the U.S. Supreme Court’s interpretation of Article I, Section 9, clause 3 of the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits bills of attainder, in Nixon v. Administrator of General Services, 433 U.S. 425 (1977).

[5] SeaRiver, 309 F.3d at 668-69 (citing Selective Serv. Sys. v. Minn. Pub. Interest Research Group, 468 U.S. 841, 847 (1984)).

[6] Id. at 669 (citing Selective Serv. Sys. v. Minn. Pub. Interest Research Group, 468 U.S. 841, 847 (1984); United States v. Brown, 381 U.S. 437, 448-49 (1965)).

[7] U.S. Const. art. I, § 9, cl. 3.

[8] SeaRiver, 309 F.3d at 674.

[9] U.S. Const. amend. V.

[10] 428 U.S. 1 (1976).

[11] 528 U.S. 562 (2000).

[12] Id. at 564. The Ninth Circuit held that because the Valdez was not a suspect class, any conceivable rational basis for the differential treatment would defeat its equal protection claim. SeaRiver, 309 F.3d at 679 (quoting FCC v. Beach Communication, Inc., 508 U.S. 307, 313 (1993)).

[13] SeaRiver, 309 F.3d at 679.

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