SCOTUS Fishing for a Way to Overturn Conviction in “Yates” without Tossing Law Overboard

supreme courtIt is notoriously difficult—if not foolish—to predict the outcome of a Supreme Court case from the questions the justices pose at oral argument. The case of Yates v. U.S., concerning a commercial fisherman who was convicted and sentenced under the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, is no exception.

And yet, after today’s argument (transcript here), it appears that some members of the Court are grappling for a way to overturn Yates’s conviction without completely rewriting the statute.

Three years after Mr. Yates received an administrative fine for harvesting undersized fish, the U.S. Attorney indicted him for destroying a “record, document, or tangible thing” under the “anti-shredding” provision of Sarbanes-Oxley. The “tangible things” at issue, the government insisted, were undersized red grouper Yates evidently ordered crew members to throw overboard.

Although the government seemingly got the better of the statutory interpretation argument today, a number of justices appeared uncomfortable with the breadth of the government’s application of the statute. While conceding that the government made some good arguments, Justice Alito nevertheless told the government’s attorney, “[Y]ou are really asking the Court to swallow something that is pretty hard to swallow.” Many justices were concerned that the statute contains a 20-year maximum sentence and applies to any matter within the jurisdiction of any department or agency of the United States.

red grouper

red grouper

Even more troubling, the government attorney informed the Court that once a decision is made to prosecute, the U.S. Attorney’s Manual recommends that the “prosecutor should charge the offense that’s the most severe under the law.” That assertion drew concern from many justices, including Justice Scalia, who responded that if that is the DOJ’s position, then the Court would need to be much more careful about how extensively and broadly it construes severe statutes in the future. Justice Kennedy even went so far as to question whether the Court should even mention the concept of prosecutorial discretion ever again.

For his part, Justice Breyer exhibited keen interest in void-for-vagueness objections to the statute, expressing his concern that the language of the anti-shredding provision is so broad that it encourages arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement. Although counsel for Yates did not devote very much space to that issue in his merits briefs, that was precisely the issue that WLF focused on as amicus curiae.

Also published by Forbes.com on WLF’s contributor site

Yates Prosecution Throws Logic of Sarbanes-Oxley Act Overboard

Guest Commentary

by Nicholl B. Garza, a 2014 Judge K.K. Legett Fellow at the Washington Legal Foundation and a student at Texas Tech University School of Law.

Imagine if a commercial truck driver received a citation from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration for failing to keep a record of his driving hours. Further suppose the truck driver lost some of his records, but decided to pay a civil penalty to dispose of the matter. Normal, right? Now imagine three years later the Department of Justice (DOJ) decided to prosecute that person, alleging that he intentionally discarded documents during a federal investigation (a crime under the Sarbanes-Oxley Act (SOX)). While this circumstance may seem absurd, a very similar situation is happening to commercial fisherman John Yates because he allegedly disposed of three fish after being stopped by an official from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission during a commercial fishing trip.

SOX was enacted in 2002. The intended purpose of SOX was to provide (1) criminal prosecution for persons who defrauded investors in publicly traded securities and (2) criminal prosecution for persons who destroyed or altered evidence in certain federal investigations. With regard to “certain Federal investigations,” the SOX Senate Report listed examples such as people committing securities fraud and auditors who intentionally fail to retain audit records. However, the statutory language in SOX does not integrate these specific examples and instead simply references “Federal investigations.” Nevertheless, the Senate Report and previous prosecutions under SOX illustrate that the purpose of the act is to provide a tool to prosecute those who commit financial crimes. Strangely then, in 2010, DOJ decided to prosecute Mr. Yates under SOX. DOJ asserts that in 2007 Yates violated SOX by discarding fish because a federal investigation was taking place.

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