updated 2/28/2005 4:49:06 PM ET 2005-02-28T21:49:06

The cruise ship industry tried on Monday to fend off efforts to make its vessels more accessible to disabled vacationers, telling the Supreme Court that imposing requirements would hurt the billion-dollar tourist business.

The real question is discrimination, countered a lawyer for three disabled U.S. passengers, two of them in wheelchairs, who sued the Norwegian Cruise Line. They want the Americans With Disabilities Act extended to foreign vessels that call on U.S. ports.

“Millions of people spending billions of dollars of commerce are affected by this statute,” and it should apply to foreign-flagged vessels that stop at U.S. cities, said Thomas Goldstein, the lawyer for the disabled passengers.

They say they paid premiums to the Norwegian Cruise Line for handicapped-accessible cabins and the assistance of crew but the cruise line failed to configure restaurants, swimming pools, elevators and public bathrooms.

The case has huge implications for cruise lines, which could be forced to pay for retrofitting ships. The worldwide industry estimates two-thirds of its passengers are Americans.

Goldstein said the National Labor Relations Act doesn’t apply to the crews of foreign-flagged vessels that stop in U.S. ports, “but when Americans are involved” circumstances change.

The justices seemed concerned about stepping into an intersection of the law of the sea, U.S. rules and the laws of foreign countries.

“You are saying the U.S. rules the world,” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg told Goldstein.

The passengers drew support for their position from the Justice Department, which says the disabilities act applies.

Foreign issues raised
The justices put David Frederick, a lawyer for the cruise line, in the uncomfortable position of saying a landmark U.S. civil rights law prohibiting discrimination against African-Americans doesn’t apply to foreign-flagged vessels stopping in American ports because there is no specific language in the law saying so.

Frederick replied that the civil rights laws of the country where a ship is registered apply.

Stretching the ADA to cover foreign-flagged ships puts the courts in the position of becoming “a special master for the cruise industry,” Frederick said. “This court need not open up a pandora’s box of regulation.”

Applying the disabilities act would “wreak havoc” and “invite the sort of international discord that Congress seeks to avoid,” Gregory Garre, an attorney representing The Bahamas, told the court.

Much of the industry registers its ships away from home countries in places such as The Bahamas, Liberia, Honduras, Panama and Cyprus, which promote the practice by pointing to their business-friendly regulatory outlooks. The U.S. cruise industry is almost exclusively foreign-flagged.

Flags of convenience, as they are known, offer cruise ship operators the advantages of lower wages and fewer taxes.

Justice Antonin Scalia disputed the assertion that there is no clear language in the disabilities act that applies it to cruise ships.

The disabilities act, said the lawyer for the cruise line, refers to modes of transportation that include “any other conveyance.”

“That’s pretty good,” Scalia replied, suggesting that there may be enough wording in the law to apply it in this case.

Justice Stephen Breyer expressed two concerns: applying the law to ships that rarely visit U.S. ports; and not applying the disabilities act when, by the industry’s own estimates, most of its customers are Americans.

The cruise lines and disability groups had urged the Supreme Court to take the case, noting that federal appeals courts in Louisiana and Florida reached opposite conclusions on whether the disabilities act applies to the industry.

The case is Spector v. Norwegian Cruise Line Ltd. 03-1388.

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