March 2015

Court Decides Sarbanes-Oxley Is Intended for a Different Kettle of Fish

The Fish Tale and the U.S. Supreme Court: Part II
J. Allen Maines

By a surprisingly narrow margin, the U.S. Supreme Court recently spared future fishermen from facing up to 20 years in prison for destroying their catch. The case, Yates v. United States of America, involved the curious tale of John Yates, a commercial fisherman from Florida who found himself in front of our nation's highest court. During oral argument on Nov. 5, 2014, the case attracted national attention for its strange facts, as well as the unusually humorous questions that the parties received from the Court. Although many observers were skeptical that Yates' conviction would be upheld, the Court's decision was ultimately closer than anticipated. As explained in this article, in a 5-4 decision that was resolved by Justice Alito's concurrence, the Supreme Court agreed to let Yates off the hook. In doing so, the Court offered additional guidance on the problem of overcriminalization in American criminal jurisprudence.

In Yates, the issue was whether a provision of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 (SOX) – a post-Enron law that intended to prevent the shredding of incriminating documents – could also criminalize the destruction of fish. On its face, the provision applies to the destruction of any "tangible object," including fish

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