Supreme Court tackles fish case

The Supreme Court spent time yesterday immersed in arguments about an unusual topic: fish. Specifically, the case before the Court involved provisions of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act as applied to a fisherman who had caught fish smaller than was permitted by federal law and then disposed of some of them to avoid being charged. The Act was passed in response to corporate scandals involving the destruction of documents to avoid prosecution. The significant provision in this case, as reported by SCOTUS Blog is the provision making it a crime to "'destroy, mutilate, conceal, or cover up any record, document, or tangible object' with the intent to influence or obstruct a federal investigation under 'any matter within the jurisdiction' of any federal agency." The question at issue? Whether a fish qualifies as a "tangible object" under this law.

The case began with the actions of Florida fisherman, John Yates, who was operating a commercial fishing vessel off the Florida coast in 2007 when he was boarded by a state conservation officer who was conducting an inspection. The officer found a batch of red grouper that were too small to be caught under federal laws and told the captain and crew to load them into a crate and leave them there until they reached port, when they would be taken by federal agents. When the vessel docked and the fish were evaluated, however, there were only 69 smaller fish out of the 72 the state conservation officer initially found. A crew member told federal officials that the captain had instructed them to throw the smaller fish overboard.

The captain was convicted of destroying the fish under the Sarbanes-Oxley Act's anti-shredding provision and sentenced to 30 days in prison. Yates could have been sentenced to up to 20 years in prison under the Act. According to the New York Times, the justices seemed skeptical as to whether the law applied to Mr. Yates and critical of the decision to prosecute him at all, citing concerns with governmental overreach and issues of prosecutorial discretion. Justice Ginsburg inquired whether the Department of Justice gives guidance on what charges federal prosecutors should bring in this sort of case, given that Yates could have been charged with violating a different statute which had a maximum penalty of five years, and Justice Scalia questioned, “What kind of a mad prosecutor would try to send this guy up for 20 years?”

SCOTUS Blog offers a detailed plain English description of yesterday's arguments, here. For additional information, see this article from theWashington Post, and this one from the ABA Journal.