SCOTUS Denies Hearing of Piracy Cases

Lady Justice in front of the U.S. Supreme Court

We have been following a number of piracy cases in the U.S. two of which had resulted in convictions and looked like they might be heading to the U.S. Supreme Court (SCOTUS). The issue in U.S. v. Said and U.S. v. Dire was whether piracy, as defined by the law of nations, incorporates modern developments in international law. See also here. By declining to hear the cases, SCOTUS takes no view on the debate. However, in several lower court decisions, judges have relied on the pronouncement in Sosa v. Alvarez-Machain that claims “must be gauged against the current state of international law, looking to those sources we have long, albeit cautiously, recognized.” This conclusion runs counter to a judicial philosophy of strictly construing the plain language of a statute based on the understanding of the congressional authors at the time the act came into law. Because piracy was a novel issue unaddressed by SCOTUS in several hundred years, and because the legal issue on appeal invited strong ideological views, I had thought the case for hearing Said and Dire was fairly strong. Nonetheless, one weakness in the argument was that there was no split of authority between the federal courts of appeal (one basis for SCOTUS granting discretionary review). Both cases originated in the 4th circuit and reached the same conclusion on this point of law.

The same is not necessarily true in a second set of cases in U.S. courts involving pirate negotiators. In the case of U.S. v. Shibin, in the 4th Circuit, the defendant was convicted for aiding and abetting piracy although he was a hostage negotiator operating from within Somalia, and it is reported that Shibin only boarded the pirated ship after it entered Somali waters. In U.S. v. Ali, the federal court in the DC Circuit reached the opposite result and dismissed the aiding and abetting charges against an alleged pirate negotiator because it held that piracy must be committed on the high seas. These cases raise the issue of whether piracy can be perpetrated on land or within a state’s territorial waters, despite UNCLOS defining piracy as an offense perpetrated on the high seas. U.S. v. Ali is the subject of a prosecution interlocutory appeal on this issue, and Shibin’s conviction is on appeal to the 4th Circuit. Therefore SCOTUS might have another opportunity to get involved in the piracy debate and to make a contribution to the status of customary international law on the subject – although it might take another year for these cases to be ripe for review. On the other hand, it appears both circuits might reach the same conclusion and find that aiding and abetting piracy can be perpetrated on land – a position I have argued in a forthcoming law review article in the Florida Journal of International Law.

 

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