The Paquete Habana/Dissent Fuller

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United States Supreme Court

175 U.S. 677

The Paquete Habana

 Argued: November 7, 8, 1899. --- Decided: January 8, 1900

Mr. Chief Justice Fuller, with whom concurred Mr. Justice Harlan and Mr. Justice McKenna, dissenting:

The district court held these vessels and their cargoes liable because not 'satisfied that as a matter of law, without any ordinance, treaty, or proclamation, fishing vessels of this class are exempt from seizure.'

This court holds otherwise, not because such exemption is to be found in any treaty, legislation, proclamation, or instruction granting it, but on the ground that the vessels were exempt by reason of an established rule of international law applicable to them, which it is the duty of the court to enforce.

I am unable to conclude that there is any such established international rule, or that this court can properly revise action which must be treated as having been taken in the ordinary exercise of discretion in the conduct of war.

In cannot be maintained 'that modern usage constitutes a rule which acts directly upon the thing itself by its own force, and not through the sovereign power.' That position was disallowed in Brown v. United States, 8 Cranch, 110, 128, 3 L. ed. 510, and Chief Justice Marshall said: 'This usage is a guide which the sovereign follows or abandons at his will. The rule, like other precepts of morality, of humanity, and even of wisdom, is addressed to the judgment of the sovereign; and although it cannot be disregarded by him without obloquy, yet it may be disregarded. The rule is in its nature flexible. It is subject to infinite modification. It is not an immutable rule of law, but depends on political considerations which may continually vary.'

The question in that case related to the confiscation of the property of the enemy on land within our own territory, and it was held that property so situated could not be confiscated without an act of Congress. The Chief Justice continued: 'Commercial nations in the situation of the United States have always a considerable quantity of property in the possession of their neighbors. When war breaks out, the question, What shall be done with enemy property in our country?-is a question rather of policy than of law. The rule which we apply to the property of our enemy will be applied by him to the property of our citizens. Like all other questions of policy, it is proper for the consideration of a department which can modify it at will; not for the consideration of a department which can pursue only the law as it is written. It is proper for the consideration of the legislature, not of the executive or judiciary.'

This case involves the capture of enemy's property on the sea, and executive action, and if the position that the alleged rule proprio vigore limits the sovereign power in war be rejected, then I understand the contention to be that, by reason of the existence of the rule, the proclamation of April 26 must be read as if it contained the exemption in terms, or the exemption must be allowed because the capture of fishing vessels of this class was not specifically authorized.

The preamble to the proclamation stated, it is true, that it was desirable that the war 'should be conducted upon principles in harmony with the present views of nations and sanctioned by their recent pratice,' but the reference was to the intention of the government 'not to resort to privateering, but to adhere to the rules of the Declaration of Paris;' and the proclamation spoke for itself. The language of the preamble did not carry the exemption in terms, and the real question is whether it must be allowed because not affirmatively withheld, or, in other words, because such captures were not in terms directed.

These records show that the Spanish sloop Paquete Habana 'was captured as a prize of war by the U.S. S.C.astine' on April 25, and 'was delivered' by the Castine's commander 'to Rear Admiral Wm. T. Sampson (commanding the North Atlantic Squardron),' and therequpon 'turned over' to a prize master with instructions to proceed to Key West.

And that the Spanish schooner Lola 'was captured as a prize of war by the U.S. S. Dolphin,' April 27, and 'was delivered' by the Dolphin's commander 'to Rear Admiral Wm. T. Sampson (commanding the North Atlantic Squardron),' and thereupon 'turned over' to a prize master with instructions to proceed to Key West.

That the vessels were accordingly taken to Key West and there libeled, and that the decrees of condemnation were entered against them May 30.

It is impossible to concede that the Admiral ratified these captures in disregard of established international law and the proclamation, or that the President, if he had been of opinion that there was any infraction of law or proclamation, would not have intervened prior to condemnation.

The correspondence of April 28, 30, between the Admiral and the Secretary of the Navy, quoted from in the principal opinion, was entirely consistent with the validity of the captures.

The question put by the Admiral related to the detention as prisoners of war of the persons manning the fishing schooners 'attempting to get into Havana.' Noncombatants are not so detained except for special reasons. Sailors on board enemy's trading vessels are made prisoners because of their fitness for immediate use on ships of war. Therefore the Admiral pointed out the value of these fishing seamen to the enemy, and advised their detention. They Secretary replied that if the vessels referred to were 'attempting to violate blockade' they were subject 'with crew' to capture, and also that they might be detained if 'considered likely to aid enemy.' The point was whether these crews should be made prisoners of war. Of course they would be liable to be if involved in the guilt of blockade running, and the Secretary agreed that they might be on the other ground in the Admiral's discretion.

All this was in accordance with the rules and usages of international law, with which, whether in peace or war, the naval service has always been necessarily familiar.

I come then to examine the proposition 'that at the present day, by the general consent of the civilized nations of the world, and independently of any express treaty or other public act, it is an established rule of international law, founded on considerations of humanity to a poor and industrious order of men, and of the mutual convenience of belligerent states, that coast fishing vessels, with their implements and supplies cargoes and crews, undarmed, and honestly pursuing their peaceful calling of catching and bringing in of fresh fish, are exempt from capture as prize of war.'

This, it is said, is a rule 'which prize courts, administering the law of nations, are bound to take judicial notice of, and to give effect to, in the absence of treaty or other public act of their own government.'

At the same time it is admitted that the alleged exemption does not apply 'to coast fishermen or their vessels, if employed for a warlike purpose, or in such a way as to give aid or information to the enemy; nor when military or naval operations create a necessity to which all private interests must give way;' and, further, that the exemption has not 'been extended to ships or vessels employed on the high sea in taking whales or seals, or cod or other fish which are not brought fresh to market, but are salted or otherwise cured and made a regular article of commerce.'

It will be perceived that the exceptions reduce the supposed rule to very narrow limits, requiring a careful examination of the facts in order to ascertain its applicability; and the decision appears to me to go altogether too far in respect of dealing with captures directed or ratified by the officer in command.

But were these two vessels within the alleged exemption? They were of 25 and 35 tons burden respectively. They carried large tanks, in which the fish taken were kept alive. They were owned by citizens of Havana, and tha owners and the masters and crew were to be compensated by shares of the catch. One of them had been 200 miles from Havana, off Cape San Antonio, for twenty-five days, and the other for eight days off the coast of Yucatan. They belonged, in short, to the class of fishing or coasting vessels of from 5 to 20 tons burden, and from 20 tons upwards, which, when licensed or enrolled as prescribed by the Revised Statutes. are declared to be vessels of the United States, and the shares of whose men, when the vessels are employed in fishing, are regulated by statute. They were engaged in what were substantially commercial ventures, and the mere fact that the fish were kept alive by contrivances for that purpose-a practice of considerable antiquity-did not render them any the less an article of trade than if they had been brought in cured.

I do not think that, under the circumstances, the considerations which have operated to mitigate the evils of war in respect of individual harvesters of the soil can properly be invoked on behalf of these hired vessels, as being the implements of like harvesters of the sea. Not only so as to the owners, but as to the masters and crews. The principle which exempts the husbandman and his instruments of labor exempts the industry in which he is engaged, and is not applicable in protection of the continuance of transactions of such character and extent as these.

In truth, the exemption of fishing craft is essentially an act of grace, and not a matter of right, and it is extended or denied as the exigency is believed to demand.

It is, said Sir William Scott, 'a rule of comity only, and not of legal decision.'

The modern view is thus expressed by Mr. Hall: 'England does not seem to have been unwilling to spare fishing vessels so long as they are harmless, and it does not appear that any state has accorded them immumty under circumstances of inconvenience to itself. It is likely that all nations would now refrain from molesting them as a general rule, and would capture them so soon as any danger arose that they or their crews might be of military use to the enemy; and it is also likely that it is impossible to grant them a more distinct exemption.'

In the Crimean war, 1854-55, none of the orders in council, in terms, either exempted or included fishing vessels, yet the allied squadrons swept the Sea of Azof of all craft capable of furnishing the means of transportation, and the English admiral in the Gulf of Finland directed the destruction of all Russian coasting vessels, not of sufficient value to be detained as prizes, except 'boats or small craft which may be found empty at anchor, and not trafficking.'

It is difficult to conceive of a law of the sea of universal obligation to which Great Britain has not acceded. And I am not aware of adequate foundation for imputing to this country the adoption of any other than the English rule.

In his Lectures on International Law at the Naval Law College the late Dr. Freeman Snow laid it down that the exemption could not be asserted as a rule of international law. These lectures were edited by Commodore Stockton and published under the direction of the Secretary of the Navy in 1895, and, by that department, in a second edition, in 1898, so that in addition to the well-known merits of their author they possess the weight to be attributed to the official imprimatur. Neither our treaties nor settled practice are opposed to that conclusion.

In view of the circumstances surrounding the breaking out of the Mexican war, Commodore Conner, commanding the Home Squadron, on May 14, 1846, directed his officers, in respect of blockade, not to molest 'Mexican boats engaged exclusively in fishing on any part of the coast,' presumably small boats in proximity to the shore; while on the Pacific coast Commodore Stockton in the succeeding August ordered the capture of 'all vessels under the Mexican flag.'

The treaties with Prussia of 1785, 1799, and 1828, and of 1848 with Mexico, in exempting fishermen, 'unarmed and inhabiting unfortified towns, villages, or places,' did not exempt fishing vessels from seizure as prize; and these captures evidence the convictions entertained and acted on in the late war with Spain.

In is needless to review the speculations and repetitions of the writers on international law. Ortolan, De Boeck, and others admit that the custom relied on as consecrating the immunity is not so general as to create an absolute international rule; Heffter, Calvo, and others are to the contrary. Their lucubrations may be persuasive, but not authoritative.

In my judgment, the rule is that exemption from the rigors of war is in the control of the Executive. He is bound by no immutable rule on the subject. It is for him to apply, or to modify, or to deny altogether such immunity as may have been usually extended.

Exemptions may be designated in advance, or granted according to circumstances, but carrying on was involves the inflication of the hardships of war, at least to the extent that the seizure or destruction of enemy's property on sea need not be specifically authorized in order to be accomplished.

Being of opinion that these vessels were not exempt as matter of law, I am constrained to dissent from the opinion and judgment of the court; and my brothers Harlan and McKenna concur in this dissent.

(January 29, 1900.)

The court, in each case, on motion of the Solicitor General in behalf of the United States, and after argument of counsel thereon, and to secure the carrying out of the opinion and decree of this court according to their true meaning and intent, ordered that the decree be so modified as to direct that the damages to be allowed shall be compensatory only, and not punitive.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States federal government (see 17 U.S.C. 105).