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A Grumpy Judge’s Wrong-Way Voyage

Nearing the end of a long and distinguished legal career, Miami’s U.S. District Judge Patricia Seitz is playing the role of the environment’s avenging angel, threatening to ban massive Carnival Cruise Lines from American ports as punishment for illegal dumping.

But before she takes that drastic step, perhaps Seitz can spare a thought for Adriana, who was recently my Uber driver.

Adriana picked me up at home one evening to take me to Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport. A Miami resident in her 30s, Adriana apologized for her English (which was fine, and much better than my miserable Spanish). As we talked, I learned that she was a doctor in her native Venezuela before moving to Miami several years ago as conditions there deteriorated. Her father (also a doctor) and mother remain there, trapped in a society where even basic medicines like insulin and antibiotics are unavailable and people have resorted to taking pharmaceuticals meant for pets.

Miami is so thoroughly bilingual that Adriana believes her English skills have been delayed while she lives there with her sister. So she plans to move to Pittsburgh in the next few months to find a job while mastering her new language, so she can eventually take our medical boards and resume her profession in this country.

In the meantime, Uber is what sustains Adriana – and thousands like her across South Florida and elsewhere. Except most of those Adrianas will never become doctors. For those Adrianas, driving people like me to airports and cruise terminals can easily mean the difference between being able to afford the rent and not.

The Port of Miami, just a few blocks from where Seitz presides, is the world’s busiest cruise port, embarking close to 5 million passengers each year. Port Everglades (a mere 30 miles or so away, and a stone’s throw from my local airport) takes turns with Port Canaveral (about 180 miles farther north) occupying positions No. 2 and 3. Shuttling passengers between the airport and these cruise terminals, or to local hotels and attractions between connections, is a big part of any local driver’s livelihood here in Florida.

I am sure Seitz, a past Democratic donor who was appointed to the federal bench two decades ago by President Bill Clinton, does not mean to hurt these people. In fact, she made her reputation as president of the Florida bar (the first woman to hold that position) by demanding as a matter of professional ethics that attorneys demonstrate a commitment to pro bono work. Seitz took “senior status” on the federal bench in 2012. This means she is officially all but retired, handling a reduced case load purely because she chooses to do so, since a federal judge is paid for life regardless of whether she continues working.

The environmental prosecution of Carnival is one of the cases Seitz has retained. For the past two years, Carnival has been on probation as part of a $40 million plea deal over allegations that its Princess Cruises ships illegally dumped oil into the ocean over the course of eight years and lied about the practice to U.S. authorities. Seitz appointed Steven Solow, a partner at a Washington D.C. law firm, to monitor Carnival during its probation period. At an April 10 hearing, Seitz cited a variety of violations that reportedly took place during the first year of the company’s five-year probation period and suggested that the company’s internal compliance monitor lacked the authority necessary to institute meaningful change.

At the hearing, Seitz also criticized top Carnival executives, who were not present. “The people at the top are treating this as a gnat,” Seitz said. “If I could, I would give all the members of the executive committee a visit to the detention center for a couple of days. It’s amazing how that helps people come to focus on reality.”

The law, however, only gives Seitz the power to punish the company. So far, that has meant fines and probation. But she is threatening to take away the corporation’s U.S. docking privileges temporarily – a draconian punishment that she may or may not have the power to impose. We will only know if she attempts to do so and the matter goes to an appellate court. Seitz has said she will make her decision as to whether to try after a hearing scheduled for June.

Revoking U.S. docking privileges would certainly do a lot of harm to Carnival’s business, but of course, its top executives would not be the people who personally feel it. It would be the Adrianas who work the ships, run the ports, service the Customs and Immigration checkpoints, handle the bags, and drive the taxis and Ubers and Lyfts who will feel it most. If Seitz could set aside her judicial pique for a few moments, she would surely realize this.

Carnival has acknowledged the incidents that the court cites but insists that none of the violations were deliberate. In previously confidential documents which Seitz opted to make public, all of the unintentional violations were noted in internal records or reported to authorities as they happened, according to an analysis by the Miami Herald. Overall, the report paints a picture of a massive company making a good-faith effort to comply with regulations, but facing the logistical challenges inherent in operating on a large scale. Cruise ships are essentially small, floating cities with extremely limited physical space and mechanical infrastructure; Carnival operates 105 of them.

For example, Carnival was found to have discharged 500,000 gallons of treated sewage, in violation of international and domestic anti-dumping laws. While this sounds bad in isolation, cruise ships generate an average of 21,000 gallons of sewage daily. In the context of overall sewage generated in the one-year period the report covers, the dumping was less than one percent of the sewage generated by Carnival’s fleet.

The report also noted that five chairs, 41 cushions and pillows and 10 tables went overboard. International law makes it illegal to throw garbage into the ocean under any circumstances. But, as the report also notes, most of the items mentioned were thrown by passengers. Should Carnival attempt to keep passengers from throwing chairs overboard? Of course. But given that more than 11.5 million people take Carnival cruises each year, five failures are hardly egregious.

If the penalty for inadvertent or relatively trivial foot-faults – anything connected with a cruise ship that is measured in fewer than tens of thousands of gallons is trivial – is financial decapitation, then probation was really just a way of dragging out the execution and keeping Seitz’s vendetta alive. If she thinks the business deserves punishment, the solution is to punish the business the way businesses are punished: financially. Seitz can impose a fine, and an appeals court will then, if asked, consider whether the size of the fine is within her constitutional powers to impose.

Seitz’s dramatic threats regarding a docking ban are just black-robed bullying and abuse. Frankly, Adriana and people like her have suffered far too much abuse already. They don’t deserve this.

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