The U.S. Supreme Court recently handed down a ruling in the matter of a Florida fisherman who had been previously convicted of throwing undersized grouper (a family of fish that includes sea bass) off his vessel. By a vote of 5-4, the Supremes cut the fisherman loose, saying in effect that he should not have been prosecuted under the terms of a federal law meant to zero in on accounting fraud.
The law in question was passed in the aftermath of the Enron scandal. It was erroneously applied, the Court said, in the case of John Yates, a commercial fishing boat captain who was convicted of jettisoning fish that were under the minimum size allowed for keeping in the Gulf of Mexico. A fish and wildlife official from Florida had said that Yates illegally got rid of the smaller fish in order to avoid being charged with a crime.
In explaining the majority decision, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg noted that the context and purpose of the law was to cover objects used to preserve or record information – not “any and every object found on land or in the sea.”
As Ginsburg noted from the bench, “Fish one may fry, but may one falsify, or make a false entry in the sea dwelling creatures?”
Seeing as the vote was 5-4, there was significant dissent. As Justice Elena Kagan wrote for the 4 opposing justices, “A fisherman like John Yates, who dumps undersized fish to avoid a fine is no less blameworthy than one who shreds his vessel’s catch log for the same reason.”
The case dates back to 2007, when a wildlife official boarded Yates’ boat and found 72 grouper that were smaller than the 20-inch minimum required by law. By the time Yates made it back to port, however, the official found just 69 fish, and many seemed longer than the legal minimum, leading the officer to conclude that Yates had dumped the undersized fish in favor of bigger ones.
Yates had been charged under the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002, which disallows knowingly altering or destroying “any record, document, or tangible object” as a way of intentionally obstructing an investigation.