GALVESTON

A group of federally licensed ships pilots is asking a Galveston County judge to throw out the Texas system — one it calls unconstitutional — that awards people licenses to guide ships in and out of local ports.

A lawsuit filed last month in Galveston’s 212th District Court is re-upping the fight between five men who want to be local ship pilots and the Board of Pilot Commissioners for Galveston County Ports, which governs the Galveston-Texas City Pilots Association.

Those pilots, who are licensed by the state, have the exclusive right to work in local waters.

A fight over that exclusive right to pilot work has been winding through courts since 2016.

Armed now with an appeals court ruling that reversed some previous declarations about the licensing system, the men argue the pilot board’s application process should be ruled “invalid and unconstitutional.”

“The argument is that the whole process is not constitutional because it’s not open to anybody other than who Gal-Tex says,” said Justin Renshaw, the attorney representing the five men named as plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

Although the men are professional maritime pilots licensed by the U.S. Coast Guard, the Texas Transportation Code requires them to apply for a local license through the pilots board.

As part of the application process, the board turns to the Galveston-Texas City Pilots Association, a private group made up of the locally licensed ships pilots, to evaluate and interview applicants for open pilots positions, as well as perform background checks. The pilots group then reports the results to the board of commissioners.

The group suing the pilots board argues that state law doesn’t require the involvement of the pilots association and the private group has been handed too much power over the licensing process, according to the lawsuit

The 16-member association charges a tariff on each foreign-flagged oil tanker, cruise passenger ship or other vessel its members pilot into or out of ports in the county.

Tariff rates and licenses must be approved by the pilot commissioners. The pilots association does not face competition, a system predicated on the belief that pilots vying for business might take unnecessary risks and cause unsafe waterways.

In 2017, the group sued Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and the pilot board, which is appointed by Abbott, and accused them of abetting a monopoly on behalf of the pilots association.

That lawsuit was filed in Travis County. The judge there ruled in 2018 that the court did not have jurisdiction to rule on Abbott or the individual commissioners and ruled the system constitutional.

Renshaw and the federal pilots appealed that ruling, and in April the Texas Third Court of Appeals reversed part of the lower court’s ruling that called the system constitutional.

The decision appeared to be based mostly on a technicality: the original lawsuit targeted individual commissioners and not the board itself as a body. Because the board was not a party to the lawsuit, it could not be ruled immune.

The new lawsuit now names the pilots board specifically and doubles down on the same arguments the federal pilots have now made for three years.

“There was no ruling on the merits and it was basically two years of an intellectual exercise on the issue of first impressions,” Renshaw said. “We’re kind back at square one.”

The new lawsuit might face long odds in the Galveston Court. On Friday, an attorney for the Galveston-Texas City Pilots Association said Renshaw’s claims had already been “shot down” by courts around the country.

The pilots association had attempted to get Renshaw’s lawsuit heard in Galveston County before he filed his lawsuit in Travis County, attorney Paxton Crew said.

“Now, two years later, he is back in Galveston County in the same court he refused to participate in two years ago,” Crew said. “I’ve never seen anything like this.”

Crew said he was not aware of Renshaw’s new lawsuit until he was contacted by The Daily News on Friday. It’s possible that the pilots association could ask to join the lawsuit in order to object to it, he said.

No attorney for the board of pilot commissioners was listed on court documents. Renshaw said he was still in the process of serving the commissioners with the lawsuits on Friday.

John Wayne Ferguson: 409-683-5226; john.ferguson@galvnews.com or on Twitter @johnwferguson.

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