As the United States and a new Somali defendant gear up for trial this week in front of Judge Doumar, one question is on the mind of all concerned: Where are the Fourth Circuit’s piracy decisions?
The Fourth Circuit has been considering the definition of piracy for over a year now. Last spring, a three-judge panel consisting of Judge King, Judge Davis, and Judge Keenan heard oral arguments in an appeal arising out of an attack on the U.S.S. Ashland. Last September, the same panel heard oral arguments in an appeal arising out of an attack on the U.S.S. Nicholas. At the time of the Nicholas arguments, it appeared that the panel had put the case on some sort of fast track after the Ashland appeal was caught up in some procedural confusion. But the Nicholas appeal has not been quickly resolved even though, as I have previously argued, the procedural issue that seemed to dog the Ashland appeal has been resolved by a different panel in a different case.
Regardless of the outcome of the Ashland appeal, it is curious that the decision in the Nicholas appeal has not yet been issued. Various judges on the panel did show interest at oral argument in issues beyond the definition of piracy, such as the extraterritorial application of Miranda and the unit of prosecution under 924(c). But the panel did not press the government very hard on the definition-of-piracy issues, as one would expect if the judges’ pre-argument review of the case pointed toward a ruling against the government.
There can be many reasons for the passage of so much time without a decision. And in big cases, the decisions can take a long time. Perhaps the panel is deeply fractured on one or more of the issues. Perhaps the judges have been busy working on other cases (as seems to be at least part of the explanation given lengthy or controversial opinions that have been released in recent months by the panel members in other cases). Or perhaps the opinion or opinions at issue raise knotty questions about other aspects of the Fourth Circuit’s case law that need to be smoothed out. At this point, it is all speculative from the outside.
That speculation could start building if more stories like yesterday’s AP story about the upcoming piracy trial begin to appear. As the story explains, ”[t]he trial of a Somali man U.S. authorities consider the highest-ranking pirate they have ever captured will begin this week in Virginia under a cloud of uncertainty about what the definition of piracy is.” Part of the uncertainty is whether the crime of piracy requires that the pirate actually took possession of the target ship, committing robbery at sea. Two district courts have gone different ways on that question. These are the two cases currently on appeal to the Fourth Circuit.