Yates v. US: Common Sense Prevails by Failing

Why are lawyers and the legal profession so misunderstood? Many reasons; but among them is that sometimes it takes a nonsensical conclusion to reach a commonsensical result.

Are fish "tangible objects"? That was the gist of question presented to the United States Supreme Court in Yates v. United States, (2015). If your gut reactions is, "Of course, they are," maybe the Yates case will change your mind about that...and about lawyers. Okay, maybe not about lawyers, but probably about whether fish are tangible objects.

In the summer of 2007, John Yates was fishing off the coast of Florida in his commercial fishing boat the Miss Katie. While at sea, Yates' boat was boarded by a Florida Fish and Wildlife officer who was also working for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The officer observed three red grouper on deck he believed to be undersized. At the time, the law required any red grouper under 20" to be released. Believing other undersized fish would be on board, the officer inspected the ship's catch and found 72 of the more than 3000 red grouper to be undersized.

The officer segregated the undersized fish and ordered Yates to preserve the evidence in a wooden crate. Yates was issued a civil citation and ordered to return to shore for further inspection (read John Yates' version of events in Politico Magazine). What happened next is in dispute.

At shore, the inspection turned up only 69 undersized fish, but undersized fish which were larger than the undersized fish found at sea. Federal prosecutors maintained Yates instructed his crew to throw the undersized fish overboard and replace them with other fish. Yates maintained he did nothing wrong and the agent hastily measured the fish at sea.

Yates was charged and convicted for violating, among other things, the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002. The provision of Sarbanes-Oxley in question, 18 U.S.C.§1519, provides:

Whoever knowingly alters, destroys, mutilates, conceals, covers up, falsifies, or makes a false entry in any record, document, or tangible object with the intent to impede, obstruct, or influence the investigation or proper administration of any matter within the jurisdiction of any department or agency of the United States...shall be fined under this title, imprisoned not more than 20 years, or both (emphasis added).

The Sarbanes-Oxley law was enacted in 2002 in response to the Enron scandal. The purpose was to criminalize the destruction of financial and other records to cover up for wrongdoing or obstruct an investigation.

Yates was convicted of violating 18 U.S.C.§1519 by destroying a "tangible object," namely fish. He was sentenced to serve 30 days with three years of supervised release. The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the conviction

However, in a plurality decision, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the conviction and held:

A fish is no doubt an object that is tangible; fish can be seen, caught, and handled, and a catch, as this case illustrates, is vulnerable to destruction. But it would cut §1519 loose from its financial-fraud mooring to hold that it encompasses any and all objects, whatever their size or significance, destroyed with obstructive intent.

Justice Ginsburg wrote the plurality opinion, which was joined by Justice Breyer, Justice Sotomayor, and Chief Justice Roberts. Apparently, fishing makes for strange bedfellows.

Justice Alito concurred writing:

Finally, my analysis is influenced by §1519’s title: “Destruction, alteration, or falsification of records in Federal investigations and bankruptcy.” (Emphasis added.) This too points toward filekeeping, not fish.

In a debate that can only be described as comical, the dissent, written by Justice Kagan, and joined by Justices Scalia, Kennedy, and Thomas, notes:

That is not necessarily the end of the matter; I agree with the plurality (really, who does not?) that context matters in interpreting statutes.

Also:

The plurality searches far and wide for anything—anything—to support its interpretation of §1519. But its fishing expedition comes up empty.

The long and short of it is it took our nation's highest court and nine of our country's most influential thinkers over 40 pages to determine that fish are objects that are tangible, but not tangible objects.

And somehow the decision makes perfect sense. Legal sense. And common sense, but it takes a linguistic construction and statutory interpretation that makes no logical sense.