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Supreme Court Wasn’t Hooked by Feds’ Arguments in Yates Too-Small Fish Case

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The Supreme Court let commercial fisherman John Yates off the hook today when it ruled that fish don’t count as “tangible objects” under the Sarbanes-Oxley Act. Yates initially faced up to 20 years in prison for each of the three fish he possessed before throwing them back into the ocean.

If the idea that he committed a crime worth 20 years in the slammer sounds fishy to you, it did to a majority of the Supreme Court as well.

Yates had been cited in 2007 for possessing three fish that were each one-inch too small.  Before he returned to shore, he and his crew tossed the shrimpy fish overboard.  That’s when the legal sharks of the federal government attacked.

The Feds prosecuted Yates under the Sarbanes-Oxley Act.  The law, created after the financial accounting fraud scandals at Enron and Worldcom, prohibits destroying “tangible objects” like records and documents.  Suffice it to say, Congress never considered tiny fish when they passed the legislation.

After all, the law was intended to prosecute white-collar crime, not whitefish crime.

In her dissent, however, Justice Elena Kagen was singing to a different tuna than the majority, citing the well-known if slightly less “lawyerly” Dr. Suess as justification for why fish should be considered “tangible objects,” writing:

As the plurality must acknowledge, the ordinary meaning of “tangible object” is “a discrete thing that possesses physical form.” Ante, at 7 (punctuation and citation omitted). A fish is, of course, a discrete thing that possesses physical form. See generally Dr. Seuss, OneFish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish (1960). So the ordinary meaning of the term “tangible object” in §1519, as no one here disputes, covers fish (including too-small red grouper).

Thankfully for Yates and his family, a majority of the justices on the Supreme Court didn’t flounder around and proved today that they do have a sole by making the right ruling that a law meant for crimes that happen in the board room shouldn’t be used to go after crimes that happened “on board” a boat in the ocean.

Kudos to the Supreme Court for rejecting the crappie logic of the federal government and the misapplication of Sarbanes-Oxley in this case and making the smart ruling they did.

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