WASHINGTON — This is a story about a man, his floating home and his penchant for hauling public officials before the Supreme Court.
Fane Lozman has performed this latter feat not once, but twice — the equivalent of 30 minutes of fame, rather than a mere 15. While his targets are the same political leaders of Riviera Beach, Fla., with whom he has tangled since 2006, his weapon of choice has morphed from maritime law to the Constitution.
Lozman will be back inside the high court Tuesday, five years after winning a legal battle over a floating home — please don't call it a houseboat — that had the justices ruminating about inner tubes, wooden washtubs and plastic dishpans. They ruled the city had no right to call it a vessel, thereby to seize and destroy it. Chief Justice John Roberts later called Lozman v. Riviera Beach his favorite case of the 2012 term.
And a star was born.
The 56-year-old bachelor, a former commodities trader and multi-millionaire, now bills himself as a "corruption-fighting activist" and a "persistent and tenacious underdog" on his web site. It features dozens of news stories, a "Fox and Friends" video and local media awards such as "Best Lawsuit" and "Best Gadfly."
His second brush with fame is no laughing matter. He has returned to the Supreme Court with a lawsuit born out of his arrest at a 2006 City Council meeting, when he refused a directive to stop complaining about political corruption. This time, he has attracted support from major media organizations and defenders of the First Amendment.
"This case is one of the defining Supreme Court cases of our generation," Lozman says. "If I lose, police and governments will be immunized. They can always censure free speech."
He is a study in contrasts. An ex-Marine Corps aviator with a love of the water, Lozman moved more than a decade ago from the frantic trading floors of Chicago back to Florida, where he could watch manatees "in a nice, warm place where I could have a good time."
It didn't work out that way. Hurricane Wilma destroyed his first chosen marina in tiny North Bay Village, between Miami and Miami Beach, in 2005. After he moved north to another marina in Riviera Beach, officials decided to use eminent domain and redevelop the city's waterfront.
The result has been a never-ending series of legal battles. Officials tried to evict Lozman, seize his floating home, and arrest him. Lozman took them to court at every turn. He even ran ads offering $50,000 and $100,000 rewards "to get some dirt on these elected officials who were laughing about destroying my floating home."
Elizabeth Wade, the former city councilwoman who ordered his arrest in 2006, calls him "a rich white boy with nothing to do, and government is his hobby."
"It has been a fun game for him," she says. "He has the money, and he has the time."
Lozman says the local pols started it. "It's not like I'm a serial litigant," he protests. "These cases came to me."
A home, not a boat
The first case came to him as a result of the city's $2.4 billion redevelopment plan in 2006. Faced with the potential evisceration of his second Florida marina, Lozman filed suit, claiming the city had violated the sunshine law on open meetings.
Before the year was out, he was evicted from the marina and arrested at a council meeting. He won the eviction case in 2007. The free speech case has dragged on for a decade.
"The legal process is so slow," he says.
Fast forward two years to 2009, when the city seized Lozman's home over a missing month's rent and had it towed away. A federal judge ultimately decided the home was a boat, and it was sold at auction — to the city, which quickly had it destroyed. Lozman was only able to keep his clothes, computers and 10-pound dachshund, Lady, still kicking at 13.
Along the way, he bought a book entitled How to Represent Yourself in Court, which he did at first. After a federal appeals court upheld the verdict against him and the Supreme Court agreed to hear it, he turned the case over to Jeffrey Fisher of the Supreme Court Litigation Clinic at Stanford Law School. (The clinic's Pam Karlan will argue his second case Tuesday.)
"I taught myself the law," he says. "But I had a gold mine of great lawyers who taught me a ton along the way."
The case of the floating-home-not-a-houseboat was heard Oct. 1, 2012, and decided three months later. In the 7-2 ruling, Justice Stephen Breyer chastised the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit.
"Not every floating structure is a 'vessel,'" Breyer wrote. "To state the obvious, a wooden washtub, a plastic dishpan, a swimming platform on pontoons, a large fishing net, a door taken off its hinges, or Pinocchio (when inside the whale) are not 'vessels,' even if they are 'artificial contrivance[s]' capable of floating, moving under tow, and incidentally carrying even a fair-sized item or two when they do so."
Free speech or a crime?
As that case made its way through the federal courts, a transcript emerged from a closed City Council meeting in 2006 in which officials speculated about having Lozman followed. "I think it will help to intimidate" him, Wade said at the time.
Thus was the second case filed in 2008. That it also has reached the Supreme Court, following a 19-day trial in which Lozman again acted as his own lawyer, is almost a mathematical impossibility. Each year, the justices agree to hear about 1% of the petitions that cross their desks. He has avoided the 99% twice.
The case boils down to this: Lozman claims he was arrested out of retaliation for his actions against the city's redevelopment plan. The city claims it had probable cause to arrest him — if not for disorderly conduct and resisting arrest, charges that later were dropped, then for disturbing a government meeting, a misdemeanor under Florida law.
"Lozman is one of many outspoken opponents of the city’s plan to redevelop the Riviera Beach marina," his lawyers said in court papers. "He typically used his allotted time to air grievances against city leadership, almost always making vague accusations of corruption and threatening electoral and criminal consequences."
Wade, now 71, remembers those days well. Not only did she have him removed from the council's meeting in 2006, she recalls, but warned him that "I would put my foot so far up his behind...." She didn't stop there.
Today, she remains adamant that Lozman caused all the trouble himself.
"I don't see why the Supreme Court is holding this case," Wade says. "It hurts us, because we have to spend taxpayers' dollars to defend that crap."
And Lozman may not be done yet. He's purchased 25 acres of submerged land on Singer Island, part of Riviera Beach, and hopes to build homes on stilts for himself and prospective buyers. Residents of nearby condominiums oppose the development.
In the meantime, he is basking in the glory of a "Sunshine Award" he received last month from the Florida-based First Amendment Foundation -- a far cry from "Best Gadfly."
Says Lozman: "That's the biggest honor I've ever been given."