The Ninth Circuit’s reversal of a district court decision ruling that actions by Sea Shepherd against Japanese whaling vessels could not constitute piracy because they did not satisfy the “private ends” requirement is obviously correct. (Institute of Cetacean Research v. Sea Shepard Conservation Society.) The district court’s analysis always struck me as strange and disconnected with piracy practice and caselaw. In this post, I’ll discuss the relevance of the decision to Alien Tort Statute issues, and in a subsequent one, I’ll examine the merits.
The Japanese whalers brought suit under the ATS, and the case is notable in two other ways relevant to the Supreme Court’s upcoming decision in Kiobel. First, it shows that the ATS can have both liberal and conservative uses, as I’ve noted before. It is true that there have been few conservative uses, but there weren’t any uses of any kind for 200 years, until Filartiga inspired a wave of human rights litigation. Thus a ruling narrowing the ATS in Kiobel cannot be simply interpreted as “conservative” decision.
Second, it shows that even the narrowest possible ruling in Kiobel – finding the statute to not apply on foreign territory or create corporate liability – cannot be said to close the door to all ATS litigation, or read the statute so narrowly as to make it a dead letter. This case, for example, would clearly survive the narrowest possible post-Sosa view of the ATS.
I am less sure that the ATS applies to piracy at all, though the Ninth Circuit was safe to assume this, as it was assumed by both parties and the Supreme Court in Sosa. I have criticized that that assumption:
It is not clear that Sosa was right about Congress’s belief that the ATS would be a vehicle for piracy suits. Although piracy was one of the three offenses incorporated into common law, it stood on very different remedial footing than the other two. Civil remedies against pirates were almost exclusively in rem. While damages actions were possible, it is hard to find any evidence of such suits, and they would likely have been far too marginal to command Congress’s solicitude. (pg. 107)
Today’s ruling was just on a preliminary injunction. Hopefully on remand, the defendants will take the opportunity to inquire why anyone would thing Congress would have added a supplemental damages remedy to the standard in rem recovery against pirates – to say nothing of an equitable remedy!