Evolving International Law and Defining Offenses

The Fourth Circuit’s noteworthy decision in U.S. v. Dire is probably the first court of appeals decision in a piracy prosecution in nearly 200 years. The Fourth Circuit decision is important not only for some novel pending piracy cases, but for the Alien Tort Statute and broader questions about the interplay of U.S. and international law.

Two groups of defendants were tried by different federal district judges for attempted piracy – they had been caught before boarding the targeted vessel (which was unfortunately for the defendants, a U.S. warship). They were charged under 18 U.S.C § 1651 with “piracy as defined by the law of nations.” Both cases turned on whether that “definition” extends to attempts. One district court said yes, in the Dire case. Another district judge, in Said, said no. He looked the important 1820 piracy case of U.S. v. Smith, where the Supreme Court discussed the definition of piracy, and said everyone agreed it was “robbery on the high seas.” Since there was no robbery here – no piracy.

The Fourth Circuit yesterday reversed the dismissal. It held that the statute refers to “the law of nations” and that is understood to change over time, and the definition of piracy with it. We are not stuck with the 1820 definition of Smith; we look to the definition today. I don’t think the Court had to get into to this evolving-international law inquiry; Said was simply wrong to read Smith’s definition as excluding attempts. Some other noteworthy features:

The Define and Punish Clause. The Fourth Circuit endorsed my position, which had been very generously expounded by the district court, that the Constitution’s Define and Punish Clause only allows for universal jurisdiction over crimes that clearly have that status in international law. Slip Op. at 15-16. The court also suggested that Congress could not define international “conduct beyond the scope of the [international legal] definition” of offenses, as I argued in this forthcoming paper.

The standard for determining law of nations violations. Because Congress did not define attempts as part of the piracy prohibition, the Court looked to international law. The Law of the Sea Treaty – just as the Senate began to debate it again this week – was an important starting point, because it provides an easy-to-refer-to definition of piracy. By its terms, the Law of the Sea definition seems to include attempts. But the Fourth Circuit did not stop there, but continued to examine how courts in prior cases in other countries had ruled, including a famous Privy Council decision from the 1930s, and rulings of the Kenyan courts that have taken a leading role in prosecuting Somali pirates today, and an U.S. case.

Thus there has been actual state judicial practice establishing “attempts” as part of piracy; the Court didn’t just read this off a treaty that had never been applied in any case. Indeed, the decision could have gone the other way if the court was asked to be the first to “apply” such a theoretical norm: the opinion noted the “necessity of looking to… case law from other countries” to find that a putative norm exists. Slip op. at 19.

This has immediate relevance for the ATS, and Kiobel. (Indeed, the court borrowed freely from ATS decisions.) The existence of relevant judicial precedents is of course what is missing in several kinds of ATS claims, and especially for corporate liability.

Perhaps later I’ll say some more about how I think the decision may have been a bit too broad, or cavalier about Congress’s failure to “define.”

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