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February 25, 2015

SCOTUS in Yates rejects broad interpretation of federal criminal statute via fascinating 5-4 split (with Justice Alito as swing vote)!!

Download (5)I often tell students that one of many reasons I find sentencing and related criminal justice issues so fascinating is because truly hard and interesting Supreme Court cases will rarely be resolved via the traditional (and traditionally boring) political splits among the Justices.  This reality is dramatically and uniquely on display this morning thanks to a ruling for a federal criminal defendant today in Yates v. United States, No. 13-7451 (S. Ct. Feb. 25, 2015) (available here).  Yates has produced this remarkable and unprecedented combination of opinions and votes:

GINSBURG, J., announced the judgment of the Court and delivered an opinion, in which ROBERTS, C. J., and BREYER and SOTOMAYOR, JJ., joined. ALITO, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment. KAGAN, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which SCALIA, KENNEDY, and THOMAS, JJ., joined.

Here are some money quotes from the start of the plurality opinion authored by Justice Ginsburg:

John Yates, a commercial fisherman, caught undersized red grouper in federal waters in the Gulf of Mexico.  To prevent federal authorities from confirming that he had harvested undersized fish, Yates ordered a crew member to toss the suspect catch into the sea. For this offense, he was charged with, and convicted of, violating 18 U. S. C. §1519...

Yates does not contest his conviction for violating §2232(a), but he maintains that fish are not trapped within the term “tangible object,” as that term is used in §1519.

Section 1519 was enacted as part of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002, 116 Stat. 745, legislation designed to protect investors and restore trust in financial markets following the collapse of Enron Corporation. A fish is no doubt an object that is tangible; fish can be seen, caught, and handled, and a catch, as this case illustrates, is vulnerable to destruction.  But it would cut §1519 loose from its financial-fraud mooring to hold that it encompasses any and all objects, whatever their size or significance, destroyed with obstructive intent.  Mindful that in Sarbanes-Oxley, Congress trained its attention on corporate and accounting deception and cover-ups, we conclude that a matching construction of §1519 is in order: A tangible object captured by §1519, we hold, must be one used to record or preserve information.

And here are excerpts from the close of the dissenting opinion authored by Justice Kagan:

If none of the traditional tools of statutory interpretation can produce today’s result, then what accounts for it? The plurality offers a clue when it emphasizes the disproportionate penalties §1519 imposes if the law is read broadly. See ante, at 17–18. Section 1519, the plurality objects, would then “expose[] individuals to 20-year prison sentences for tampering with any physical object that might have evidentiary value in any federal investigation into any offense.” Ante, at 18. That brings to the surface the real issue: overcriminalization and excessive punishment in the U. S. Code.

Now as to this statute, I think the plurality somewhat — though only somewhat — exaggerates the matter. The plurality omits from its description of §1519 the requirement that a person act “knowingly” and with “the intent to impede, obstruct, or influence” federal law enforcement. And in highlighting §1519’s maximum penalty, the plurality glosses over the absence of any prescribed minimum. (Let’s not forget that Yates’s sentence was not 20 years, but 30 days.) Congress presumably enacts laws with high maximums and no minimums when it thinks the prohibited conduct may run the gamut from major to minor.... Most district judges, as Congress knows, will recognize differences between such cases and prosecutions like this one, and will try to make the punishment fit the crime. Still and all, I tend to think, for the reasons the plurality gives, that §1519 is a bad law— too broad and undifferentiated, with too-high maximum penalties, which give prosecutors too much leverage and sentencers too much discretion.  And I’d go further: In those ways, §1519 is unfortunately not an outlier, but an emblem of a deeper pathology in the federal criminal code.

But whatever the wisdom or folly of §1519, this Court does not get to rewrite the law. “Resolution of the pros and cons of whether a statute should sweep broadly or narrowly is for Congress.”  Rodgers, 466 U. S., at 484. If judges disagree with Congress’s choice, we are perfectly entitled to say so — in lectures, in law review articles, and even in dicta.  But we are not entitled to replace the statute Congress enacted with an alternative of our own design.

Great stuff here (including a cite by Justice Kagan to the esteemed source pictured above).  And surely not to be overlooked is the remarkable reality that Justice Alito, who has a history of almost always backing prosecutors in close cases, turned out in Yates to the be key vote (and author of the actual controlling opinion) for a federal criminal defendant.  

Amazing stuff... and I hope some future law review article on Yates considers a title like "One Justice, Two Justice, Red Justice, Blue Justice: What Congress Should Learn from Dr. Seuss about Writing Statutes."  

February 25, 2015 at 10:36 AM | Permalink


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I continue to think the government is correct here but either way that is some tour de force by Kagan. Will let the experts argue the statutory canons!

Posted by: Joe | Feb 25, 2015 11:16:28 AM

It will be interesting to see if the various justices take the same approach to statutory interpretation, plain language, etc. in the upcoming healthcare case.

Posted by: AFPD | Feb 25, 2015 2:05:48 PM

federalist: Am I correct in assuming you now think J. Alito is a moron?

Posted by: lawyer | Feb 25, 2015 2:10:30 PM

Alito's opinion is surprising. I'm sure scholars will attempt to speculate on a reason. I'm glad Scalia was in the dissent because I'd want him to be consistent (he was shocked at the Department of Justice's policy on Prosecutorial discretion, but it's a policy concern, not a legal one). Props to Justice Kagan for highlighting the abuse of these laws even if the Court's aren't empowered to correct this abuse. She's attempting to follow the law, but she isn't sugarcoating it. This law is not alone and, hopefully, people won't forget that just because there might have been a sympathetic defendant.

Aside from all that, I doubt this case will have broad implications either way.

Posted by: Erik M | Feb 25, 2015 2:46:38 PM

Alito's opinion lines up with what I would think would be the understanding of the statute: Title, list of nouns, etc. Documents and records and fish was not a reasonable interpretation.
I'm pleased with the result on this one.

Posted by: folly | Feb 26, 2015 9:32:02 AM

I'm not surprised to see this was close. I remember thinking this case became much harder the closer you looked at it. At first glance, the "they tried to give him 20 years for 3 undersized fish" narrative seemed egregious. But it wasn't about having undersized fish, it was about trying to pull a ruse on the inspectors by dumping the bad fish and replacing them. I mean, if you tried to slip into the police evidence room and substitute bags of baking soda for the bags of cocaine they caught you with, we would all agree that was a fairly serious offense.

So it wasn't so much the abstract nature of the conduct that was the problem, but the context -- it was a couple of fish; it was some inspectors who weren't even federal officials if I recall (I believe they were sort of tacitly deputized for this purpose); it wasn't a secure evidence room, it was his own boat; it wasn't a criminal investigation - the actual fish dispute involved only civil penalties; and he disputed the facts, claiming that the investigators were overzealous and measured frozen fish which had shrunk (or something like that). And of course there was the broadness of the statute, which does seem to make it difficult to predict what conduct it would cover.

I'm fine with the decision. But it also seems like Kagan's dissent makes a lot of sense. She is turning out to be very sensible and a powerful reasoner. I wonder if part of the motivation for her to issue opinions like this invoking restraint is the reality that she is going to spend a lot of time trying to restrain the conservative justices from doing things that she would like to describe as activism/rewriting laws (e.g., striking down the ACA).

Posted by: anon | Feb 26, 2015 10:17:42 AM

I think Kagan's dissent was pretty good, but anon makes sound points. I would just add that the guy ultimately got thirty days in prison. Kagan covers this at the end of her opinion. There seemed to me a somewhat misguided suggestion that this was an 8A case, but it does show how 8A-like concerns can be dealt with in other ways. And, the courts do seem to make some efforts to address cases where overreaching is involved though here there wasn't really a federalism issue since it involved interfering with a "federal agent" investigating an undisputed federal matter.

Posted by: Joe | Feb 26, 2015 12:53:03 PM

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