SCOTUS to Government: Somethin’ Fishy ‘Bout Your Prosecution

This morning the Supreme Court ruled in Yates v. United States that Sarbanes-Oxley—the massive legislation prompted by the accounting scandals of the early 2000s—can’t be used to prosecute a fisherman who caught undersized grouper.  It makes eminent intuitive sense. Luckily, it’s also correct as a matter of statutory interpretation. That is, even though the relevant provision (Section 1519) punishes those who would knowingly destroy or conceal “any record, document, or tangible object” in order to impede an investigation, Justice Ginsburg is correct in writing for the plurality that “it would cut §1519 loose from its financial-fraud mooring to hold that it encompasses [objects not] used to record or preserve information.”

And Justice Alito, in a narrow concurrence that ultimately controls the case, is even more correct to apply traditional canons of statutory construction—the rules that guide judges in interpreting laws—and thereby find that “tangible object,” in the context of the list of nouns that are Sarbanes-Oxley’s target, refers to “something similar to records or documents.” In a colorful opinion rife with salamanders, crocodiles, and oil derricks, Alito asks the correct question: “How does one make a false entry on a fish?”

As Cato wrote in our brief, words such as “record” and “document” modify the term “tangible object” to include things like hard drives and floppy disks (remember those?), not grouper. Moreover, an all-encompassing reading of “tangible object” would render the words “record” and “document” unnecessary. And the broader context of Sarbanes-Oxley illuminates the relevant meaning here: The Act focuses on financial fraud in the context of companies, not fauna. Thus, the words “tangible object” should be read differently in Sarbanes-Oxley than they would be in, say, the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure.

If the term “tangible object” were read as broadly as the government wished, it could criminalize an unfathomable range of activities, from throwing away cigarette butts to washing away footprints in the sand. It wouldn’t provide adequate notice about potential legal violations, to which individuals have a right to so they can plan their actions accordingly and avoid getting caught in government nets.

After all, prosecutors and law enforcement officials can’t arbitrarily expand the range of criminal offenses as if they themselves were fishermen, exaggerating the size of their catches to a credulous legal system.