- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Laws designed to target illegal Wall Street cover-ups do not apply to fish, the Supreme Court announced Wednesday.

Congress passed the Sarbanes-Oxley Act in 2002 in response to the Enron scandal where accountants shredded thousands of documents in an attempt to hide the firm’s illegal activities. Now the nation’s highest court ruled in a 5-4 decision that fisherman John Yates shouldn’t have been charged under the law.

The case arose from an incident in Florida in 2007 when Mr. Yates‘ boat was boarded by a law enforcement officer. The officer said he counted 72 fish that were under the minimum size allowed for catching and instructed Mr. Yates to go into port.

Once on land, officials only counted 69 fish that were undersized, and the crew said Mr. Yates had instructed them to throw the small fish overboard and replace them with larger-sized ones.

Mr. Yates was eventually charged under the Sarbanes-Oxley Act with destroying evidence in an attempt to impede an investigation. Though eventually given a 30-day jail sentence, he faced a maximum of 20 years in prison.

On Wednesday, the Supreme Court threw out the conviction. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, writing for the majority, said that the law was designed specifically for objects “used to record or preserve information.”

Since there are other laws that target destruction of evidence in criminal cases, Justice Ginsburg said it was “highly improbable” that Congress meant to include “objects of any and every kind in a provision targeting fraud in financial record-keeping.”

Oral arguments for the case in November elicited discussions between the justices likely not heard in the court before, including whether a fish became an object of record if information was carved into its scales.

The 5-4 ruling split the court, though not along political lines. Justice Ginsburg was joined in the majority by Chief Justice John Roberts, Justice Stephen Breyer, Obama appointee Justice Sonia Sotomayor and conservative Justice Samuel Alito.

Obama appointee Justice Elena Kagan and conservative Justice Antonin Scalia, along with Justice Anthony Kennedy and Justice Clarence Thomas, disagreed with the ruling, arguing that the language shows Congress meant the law to have a wide range.

“That fits with Congress‘ evident purpose … to punish those who alter or destroy physical evidence — any physical evidence — with the intent of thwarting federal law enforcement,” Justice Kagan wrote.

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