First maritime law case heard by the Court in nearly 70 years could change insurance rulings across the U.S.
Just two years after his UMass Law graduation, Jonathan Goldman, JD '21 found himself walking up the white marble steps to the U.S. Supreme Court with his brother, Michael. They weren't visiting as tourists or listening to oral arguments but were there to present the final argument for a maritime law case that could have significant implications for the marine insurance industry.
"It was incredible being there. It's a very imposing building," said Goldman. "Two years out of law school, and here I am at the U.S. Supreme Court. I remember walking by the Court in 2016 but didn’t go inside. When we went in October, security was tight. We had to turn in our phones and electronics. No photos are allowed."
The case involved choice-of-law clauses in maritime insurance contracts. The dispute concerns a yacht insurance case and whether state or federal law should be applied when deciding insurance coverage. On behalf of their client, Great Lakes Insurance SE, the Goldmans argued in favor of uniform federal law.
Case follows 1955 ruling
This was the first maritime law case heard by the U.S. Supreme Court in nearly 70 years and was preceded by another maritime insurance case, Wilburn Boat Co. v. Fireman's Insurance Co. in 1955, in which the Court ruled in favor of state law. In this case, according to Goldman, the Supreme Court found that there was no federal admiralty law rule governing warranties in a marine insurance contract, and rather than formulating a uniform admiralty law rule the Court cited a previous Supreme Court decision, Paul v. Virginia, and concluded that marine insurance contracts, like all other insurance contracts, are subject to state law.
"Most critics of the decision argue that it was poorly reasoned and poorly articulated," Goldman explained. "As a result, multiple levels of uncertainty were created; more specifically, there has been a great deal of confusion over which state's law should govern a given marine insurance contract and the apparent unpredictability of the prospective outcomes.
"That led to our case, arguing that the state law of Pennsylvania should not govern a case with a legally enforceable Choice of Law Clause, despite the state's public policy to protect its citizens from bad faith dealings.
"We argued that, in our case, there was an entrenched federal rule of admiralty law, that choice of law clauses, much like forum selection clauses (as in the Bremin case), were upheld as valid. The other side argued that because the case involved insurance, which is regulated by the states, the case should have been governed by PA state law."
Supreme Court appearance was "surreal"
"It was a longshot appeal," Goldman said. "We won at the District Court level but lost at the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia."
Their argument was that the 3rd Circuit Court was wrong and that maritime insurance cases must be governed by federal admirably law. "If you start allowing states to have jurisdiction in this matter, there is room for bad faith practices. This could disrupt the entire maritime insurance industry that relies on federal law uniformity," Goldman said.
Goldman's brother, Michael, appealed to the USSC and they were shocked when the Court replied at the beginning of this year requesting a reply brief. The Court receives between 5,000-8,000 appeals each year but only hears 100 cases or 4 percent.
Michael Goldman led the case and wrote the reply brief while Jonathan did the research and helped draft the brief. The prepared for oral arguments in a mock court with a lot of "what if" scenarios the justices could raise.
At the Supreme Court, the case was presented by a Washington, DC law firm, Sullivan and Cromwell, that assisted the Goldmans. "We knew the law and they knew the land," Goldman said.
While Goldman sat in the gallery, his brother sat at the counsel table. Preserving the mystery surrounding the Court, the justices emerged one by one from behind a curtain to take their seats. "It was surreal seeing these figures. I had read their names for 20 years. It was so cool to see them all lined up," he said.
Each party is given 20-30 minutes to present their oral argument. "You have to keep your cool. You have to do your job with a level of professionalism. Everyone is on their best behavior and every answer is given with respect to the justices."
Goldman said five of the Justices seemed to be in favor of his team’s argument. But they underwent intense questioning by Associate Justice Elena Kagan. Associate Justices Amy Coney Barrett, Brett Kavanaugh, Samuel Alito, Kejani Brown Jackson, and Sonia Sotomayor "grilled the other side pretty hard."
In an analysis of the argument, published on SCOTUSblog, Ronald Mann wrote that Justice Sotomayor said, "We want uniformity in maritime interpretation. We want people to be secure in knowing which law is going to apply, not what the substance of those laws are . . ."
Justice Jackson echoed Sotomayor, saying, "If you have state interests operating in the exception, you’re going to have all of these different exceptions popping up at different times and people aren’t going to know what they’re doing."
One of Goldman’s strongest memories is seeing the exchange between the justices and the attorneys. "With the grand scale of these figures, it was inspirational and amazing being in that room.
"It was surreal. Everyone was on top of their game. The preparation was extensive. It was a privilege just to be there. I remember being in law school during Justice Kavanagh’s hearings and there he was on the Court."
A decision will be rendered in 6-12 months before the next session begins. "Should we win, we will make history in that field,” Goldman said.
Skill at reviewing cases began at UMass Law
Goldman said his 1L class in Contracts was helpful in preparing the briefs since choice-of-law contracts were covered. He also completed an independent study under Assistant Dean John Quinn on seaworthiness.
He remembered "to brief cases like Dean (Julie) Cahill said. You have to know your cases and know the law. Don’t skip over that. You have to know what the rules are. You can’t underestimate the skills you develop in reading cases.
"UMass Law taught me everything I needed to know and kept us in school during the pandemic and allowed us all to graduate on time. I can’t say enough nice things about the school, professors, and faculty," Goldman added.
After graduating from UMass Law in 2021 and passing the Massachusetts bar exam, Goldman joined his family's maritime law firm that fall. Based in Brookline with an office in Florida, Goldman Maritime Law Group was founded by his father, Steven, who works with his three children, Michael, Jacki, and Jonathan. This summer, Jonathan passed the Florida bar exam.
Before enrolling at UMass Amherst, Goldman joined the U.S. Marine Corps and was deployed to Fallujah, Iraq in 2006 in Operation Iraqi Freedom. He was honorably discharged in 2010, the same year he graduated from college.