Ahoy, Maties! In honour of Talk Like a Pirate Day, I’d lyke to present ye with a bit o’ pirate law trivia. No, I’m not talking about software or media piracy. I mean authentic buccaneers of the Blackbeard variety, aaaarrrrr.
Did you know that the Alien Tort Claims Act, which has been used successfully over the past few years to obtain remedies in U.S. courts for the victims of alleged human rights violations in other parts of the world, was originally intended to combat piracy? ATCA is one of the nation’s oldest statutes, enacted in 1789 as part of the Judiciary Act to give the United States courts jurisdiction to provide a remedy for the victims of pillaging by pirates. The law has since been used in class actions brought in U.S. courts against former foreign government leaders accused of torture, murder, and other human rights violations during their time in power.
The possible remedies under ATCA do not appear to include requiring defendants to “walk the plank” or be ”keelhauled,” but they do include the opportunity to obtain quite a bit of ”booty.” ATCA class actions led to multi-million dollar judgments in U.S. courts against the estate of former President of the Philippines, Ferdinand Marcos, and against former officials of the Bolivian government. Even more recently, ATCA class actions have been filed against multinational corporations for their alleged complicity in governmental actions or policies that violated human rights. A case against several U.S. companies for their alleged complicity in the South African government’s apartheid has been allowed to proceed under ATCA after the Second Circuit Court of Appeals ruling could not be reviewed by the Supreme Court, which lacked a quorum because of recusals necessitated by the financial interests of four Justices.
Some think that ATCA should be limited to the acts of piracy that the statute was originally enacted to combat. This PBS article has an interesting chart showing arguments for and against an expansive interpretation of ATCA to encompass a wide range of alleged human rights violations. For more on the history of ATCA as a Pirate Law, see this Time Magazine article.