When a fish-and-wildlife officer conducted an offshore inspection of a commercial fishing boat and discovered undersized fish, he instructed the captain to keep the smaller fish separate from the others until they returned to shore. Federal prosecutors allege that once the officer departed, the captain instructed his crew to toss the fish overboard and replace them with fish that met the length requirements. And so began the slippery case of Yates v. United States.
Some 32 months later from that day, John Yates was charged with, and later convicted of, violating the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 (18 U. S. C. §1519) — legislation that was initially designed to target corporate fraud:
“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 or any case filed under title 11, or in relation to or contemplation of any such matter or case, shall be fined under this title, imprisoned not more than 20 years, or both.”
Yates contested that “fish” were considered a “tangible object.” While the trial judge and then the U.S Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit did not agree with him, the Supreme Court, in an opinion by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, did and reversed the decision.
“We agree with Yates and reject the Government’s unrestrained reading. ‘Tangible object’ in §1519, we conclude, is better read to cover only objects one can use to record or preserve information, not all objects in the physical world.”
Joining Justice Ginsburg were Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor. Justice Samuel Alito, while not joining, provided a fifth vote. Justice Elena Kagan dissented. In spite of the “wisdom or folly of §1519,” she wrote, the Supreme Court “does not get to rewrite the law.”