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February 26, 2015 Practice Points

Dr. Seuss Constitutes Valid, Binding Authority For SCOTUS Dissent?

The Supreme Court reversed a conviction under 18 U.S.C. § 1519 for improperly disposing of undersized fish; Justice Kagan cites Dr. Seuss’s One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish in dissent.

By Justin L. Heather

On February 25, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the conviction of a fishing captain under 18 U.S.C. § 1519 for improperly disposing of undersized grouper in the Gulf of Mexico. In Yates v. U.S., Justice Ginsburg, writing the opinion of the 5–4 court, cited to one of America’s most beloved authors, Dr. Seuss.

The case arose from an offshore inspection of a fishing vessel when a federal agent discovered undersized grouper among the ship’s catch and instructed the captain to segregate the suspect fish from the remaining catch. Captain Yates subsequently instructed a crew member to dispose of the fish, contrary to the agent’s instructions. The captain was charged with violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1519, which provides that a person may be fined or imprisoned for up to 20 years if he “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” a federal investigation.

Yates moved for judgment of acquittal at trail, noting section 1519’s origin as a provision of Sarbanes-Oxley, a law designed to protect investors and restore trust in financial markets following the collapse of Enron. Yates argued that Section 1519’s reference to “tangible object” subsumes objects used to store information such as hard drives, not fish. The district court denied Yates’s motion, and he was subsequently convicted, which was later affirmed by the Eleventh Circuit.

The Court initially concluded that the terms “tangible” and “object” were ambiguous and that identical language may convey different meanings in different statutes and even within different provisions of the same statute. Applying certain statutory interpretation aids, the Supreme Court concluded that section 1519 could not reasonably suggest that the section prohibits spoliation of any and all physical evidence, however remote from records and that such aids warranted rejection of an aggressive interpretation of the phrase “tangible object.” Finally, the Court concluded that if such interpretation left any doubt that it would be appropriate to invoke the rule of lenity. In her dissent, joined by Justices Scalia, Kennedy, and Thomas, Justice Kagan cited Dr. Seuss perennial favorite, One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish, stating that "[a] fish is, of course, a discrete thing that possesses physical form."

Keywords: litigation, Supreme Court, 18 U.S.C. § 1519, Sarbanes-Oxley, young lawyers

— Justin L. Heather, YAC Content Manager, The Quinlan Law Firm LLC, Chicago, IL

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