American Elephants

When Is a Pirate Not Really a Pirate? by The Elephant's Child
August 23, 2010, 1:19 pm
Filed under: Africa, Law, National Security | Tags: , ,

Six Somali men were alleged to have fired on U.S. naval warships in the Indian Ocean. They were captured, and brought to the Virginia civilian court of federal judge Raymond A. Jackson, to be tried for piracy, under Section 1651 of the federal penal code.   Judge Jackson was appointed to the bench by President Clinton in 1993.

U.S Attorney Neil MacBride explained:

“since the earliest days of this country, piracy has been a serious crime…privacy threatens human lives and disrupts international commerce. When pirates attack U.S. vessels by force, they must face severe consequences.”

But Judge Jackson looked at Congress’s definition of piracy.  Instead of spelling out just what constituted piracy, Congress referred to “the crime of piracy as defined by the law of nations.”  The judge looked at a Supreme Court case from 1820 (United States v. Smith) that involved robbery on the high seas, in which the Court ruled that such a robbery fit the law of nations concept of piracy.  That does not eliminate attempts, conspiracies or other forcible acts.  But the judge decided that pirates have to succeed in robbing or killing to be a pirate.  If they try and fail, then they aren’t pirates.

Attacks in international waters are one of the very few reasons to have “a law of nations.”  But courts have become willful, and like to make law — the duty assigned to the Congressional branch — rather than just apply it. You can see why they used to just string pirates up from the yardarm.

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