Federal Lawsuit Claims Jones Act Violates the U.S. Constitution

BIG NAME: Matson imports the majority of goods to Hawaii.
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Matson ships in 67 percent of the goods to Hawaii from the Continental United States. Photo: Emily Metcalf

BY MALIA ZIMMERMAN – Most Hawaii residents haven’t heard of the Jones Act, but one Hawaii lawyer and several business owners say the 1920 federal shipping law has a major negative impact on virtually ever resident and business in the state, and they are challenging the law in U.S. District Court.



John Carroll, an attorney and former state lawmaker, has filed a class action suit against the federal government on behalf of his clients. They maintain the Jones Act violates the Commerce Clause by restricting shipping between states to American-owned and manned ships and thereby hurting businesses and residents by inflating the cost of goods.


The issue is hotly debated among Hawaii’s political elite, but largely ignored by the general public.


Carroll and his plaintiffs – who include Patrick Novak, CEO of The French Gourmet; Daniel Rocha, a farmer and rancher; Ken Schoolland, a professor at Hawaii Pacific University, as well as William Akina, Bjorn Arntzen and Philip Wilkerson – hope to educate the public about the detriments of the Jones Act, which some experts argue increases the cost of living in the islands by as much as one third.


“The most important issue for me is the violation of the Commerce Clause,” Carroll said. “The founding fathers fought the British and over threw them based on imposition, without representation, of a tax on tea.  This law’s enforcement taxes everyone who purchases anything in this state because of the excessive shipping costs, which seem to be out of control.”


John Carroll, attorney

Carroll maintains the class action lawsuit should be considered as Hawaii’s “revolution”… “to obtain economic freedom from monopolistic domination of shippers who face no competitors.”


But Carroll and other opponents of the Jones Act have met with powerful enemies who prefer to keep their control and profit.


Not surprisingly, the law has its advocates, including transportation companies, unions and lawmakers who benefit from political contributions.


Hawaii’s congressional delegation, with the exception of former Congressmen Ed Case and Charles Djou, have been beneficiaries of substantial donations from Jones Act supporters, including Hawaii’s duopoly shipping companies Matson and Horizon.


Carroll has spent a great deal of his career trying to kill the federal legislation or win Hawaii a special exemption, much like the exemptions granted by the President during natural disasters.


Three years ago, Carroll brought a lawsuit against the Jones Act, but U.S. District Judge David Ezra threw out the case saying Carroll’s clients did not have standing. Carroll said he’s learned from that experience, and believes the new lawsuit will address the issues that caused the first to fail.


Carroll said the impact of the Jones Act is so severe, that the state of Hawaii is denied access to about 90% of all available shipping in the world. He also blames the Jones Act for destroying Hawaii’s agricultural economy.


“Hawaii dairies, poultry farms, vegetable production, even banana plantations have declined or been eliminated because of the intolerable costs of farming and shipping in Hawaii,” Carroll said.


“The cost of agricultural production is prohibitive, not only because of the cost of fertilizers, herbicides, and farm implements, but also the cost of outbound shipping of locally grown fruits, livestock and ornamental plants to any destination other than the West Coast of the continental United States.”


The lawsuit not only maintains the Jones Act violates the U.S. Constitution but it also claims shippers that service the route from the continental United States, Hawaii and Guam have a monopoly.


Matson brings in 67 percent of the goods to Hawaii while Horizon Lines ships in 33 percent of the goods.






  1. I wish the plaintiffs well. Urge looking at various trade treaties and consider Fourteenth Amendment and equal protection claims. It is just as much an equal protection violation to treat differently situated people the same as it is similarly situated people differently. Also it would be nice for them to make pleadings readily accessible on the internet. If they are now I am not able to find them.

    The failure, indeed refusal, of the local governing class to even study the effects on the consumer is compelling evidence that the act has a devastating financial effect on those who seem least interested in it: consumers and businesses. I do hope that at sound economic study showing the extreme effects [and no counteracting benefits] of the sadly outdated statue are studied. I suggest GATT implications also.

  2. some consumers will demand the politicians to subsidize the high cost of shipping to our islands and these clueless politicians will comply.

  3. Its not just the the cost of goods coming here are higher, its that we cant ship to other nations throughout the pacific rim. If they get rid of the Jones act, our economy will improve drastically through free enterprise. The union workers on the ships get paid well, and the costs are passed on to us in the cost of higher shipping rates. Monopolies are always bad, I hope that the plaintiff's succeed, but I'm not holding my breath. It seems our judicial system doesn't care about whats right anymore.

  4. Hawaii should ask Puerto Rico to join in the suit since it has the same problems with the Jones Act, while the Virgin Islands are exempted.

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