Vague Laws Defy the Rule of Law

Following Enron’s downfall, the federal government charged company CEO Jeffrey Skilling with “honest services fraud” connected to the alleged manipulation of Enron’s market value (and other securities irregularities).  This charge — also at issue in two other cases before the Court this term — is based on a statute which says, in its entirety: “For the purposes of this chapter, the term ‘scheme or artifice to defraud’ includes a scheme or artifice to deprive another of the intangible right of honest services.”

Skilling was convicted, and his conviction was upheld by the Fifth Circuit.  The Supreme Court agreed to review the application of the “honest services fraud” statute to Skilling (as well as the issue of potential jury bias stemming from pretrial publicity in Houston).  Cato, joined by the Pacific Legal Foundation, filed an amicus brief supporting neither party, arguing simply that vague statutes such as the one at issue here offend due process.

We take no position on whether Skilling committed a crime, or even the crime at issue here (whatever that may be).  Instead, we argue that the Court should clarify that the constitutional prohibition on vague laws protects sophisticated and unsophisticated defendants alike in the realm of economic regulation, as well as in criminal law.  The due process requirements of fair warning and definiteness apply equally in the contexts of white collar business crimes, business torts, and civil regulations.

Vague laws involve three basic dangers:  First, they may harm the innocent by failing to warn of the offense.  Second, they encourage arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement because vague laws delegate enforcement and statutory interpretation to individual government officials.  Third, because citizens will take extra precautions to avoid violating the law, vague laws inhibit our individual freedom.

For more on this issue, see Tim Lynch’s posts here and here, Gene Healy’s op-ed, or the related policy forum and podcast.