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Supreme Court Rules In Favor Of Fisherman In Missing Fish Case


And after the accounting fraud that brought down one of America's biggest companies, Enron, Congress passed a broad new law aimed at preventing document shredding and other kinds of obstruction of justice. Yesterday, the Supreme Court narrowed the reach of that law. The court limited it to the destruction of documents and records, not a tangible object like, say, a fish. NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg explains.

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: In 2007, a Fish and Wildlife inspector in the Gulf of Mexico boarded Captain John Yates' ship and found 72 undersized grouper. The inspector crated the illegal catch and ordered Yates to bring them to shore, where the ship would be met by federal authorities. Instead, Yates ordered the crew to dump the undersized fish overboard and to substitute bigger fish. The crew did just that, but later ratted out the captain and the federal government indicted him for obstruction of justice.

JOHN YATES: They put me in handcuffs. They took me to jail.

TOTENBERG: Yates appealed his conviction, contending that the Sarbanes-Oxley law, enacted in the wake of the Enron scandal, was intended to bar only the destruction of documents and records, not fish. The federal government countered by noting that the law covered destruction as well of any, quote, "tangible object in a federal investigation." And a tangible object includes fish.

But on Wednesday, the Supreme Court, by a 5-4 vote, shot down that argument. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg announced the judgment of the court. The same words sometimes mean different things in different contexts, she said. In the Sarbanes-Oxley law, Congress trained its attention on deception in financial recordkeeping. And we conclude that the tangible object caught by the law's net is one used to record or preserve information and does not include any and every object found on land or in the sea. Joining Ginsburg, Justice Samuel Alito concurred, writing the government's expansive reading of the term tangible object would make little sense. Who wouldn't raise an eyebrow, he said, if a neighbor when asked to identify something similar to a record or document said crocodile?

The justices on both sides of the 5-4 ruling were an unusual mixed bag of conservative and liberal justices. The dissenters, led by Justice Elena Kagan, accused the five justices in the majority of a, quote, "fishing expedition of their own" to support their interpretation of the law. The decision, she said, will rule out future obstruction cases that have been brought under the law, like a prosecution for burning human body parts to thwart a murder investigation or repainting a van to cover up evidence of a fatal arson or altering a cement mixer to impede an investigation into the amputation of an employee's fingers. Kagan suggested that the real reason the court majority had neutered part of the obstruction law is the stiff maximum penalties, which give prosecutors vast leverage, twenty years in this case, though captain Yates only got 30 days. I tend to agree with the majority, Kagan said, that for these reasons this is a bad law and that it's emblematic of a deeper pathology in the federal criminal code, but, she added, we are not entitled to replace the statute Congress enacted with an alternative of our own design. Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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