Is Nepotism Always Illegal? – Kotch v. Board of River Port Pilot Commissioners, 330 U.S. 552 (1947)

This U.S. Supreme Court case is about possible legal exceptions to nepotism in hiring. Although generally speaking the nepotism in hiring would be a violation of the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, in some very limited cases, according to the Court, it could be to some extent legal.

The case is about Louisiana state practices of appointing candidates to the state positions of river pilots. Under the Louisiana law, all ships going to and from the port of New Orleans through the Mississippi river should be guided by the river pilots who are state officers. In order to be appointed to a position of pilot a candidate should serve a mandatory six month of apprenticeship under Louisiana state pilots and be certified by the State Board of River Pilot Commissioners composed by incumbent pilots.

The candidates who had at least 15 years of corresponding experience as pilots, but not served the necessary six months apprenticeship under Louisiana state pilots, were denied appointments as state pilots. In their complaint the candidates alleged that the incumbent pilots with rear exception were appointing to those state positions only their friends and relatives.

The Court made its position on the premise that the pilotage is “a unique institution and must be judged as such.” A person working as a river pilot besides all other required professional knowledge should be intimately familiar with all nuances of a specific river, harbor and port in different seasons and under different weather conditions.

Historically pilots and their families tend to live close to places where they board incoming and outgoing vessels. Those places are usually located not too far from ports that the pilots serve. It’s not surprising that young people who grow up in such communities have a unique opportunity to acquire certain knowledge of the river, harbor and weather conditions. Since many of them aspire to become pilots like their fathers and grandfathers, they have an advantage of early training and experience under the guidance of their relatives and friends and high standards of family traditions of serving as pilots.

The number of pilot positions is very limited. Only very few selections to those positions can be made at a time. It’s not surprising that those who grew up in the pilot communities could be better fit for those positions. The Court ruled that those practices could not be classified as a kind of discrimination with violated the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.