Please don’t shoot the messenger, but I’m here to tell you that the world is coming to an end. It really is. Just look at the horrifying portents of the end of days. We’ve got a global chocolate shortage coming. Eighty-year old convicted serial killer Charles Manson is getting married to a 26-year old mid-westerner that he nicknamed “Star.” A Florida city council election will be determined by drawing names out of a hat. Oh wait. Never mind that last one – that’s just Florida.
So maybe it’s not the end of days. But even if it is, I hope that the cosmos waits until the Supreme Court decides the peculiar case of Yates v. United States, (yay, it rhymes!) which involves the delicate question of whether the destruction of fish constitutes obstruction of justice.
Okay, look, I know what you’re thinking. My cod man, who on Earth cares about fish being tossed overboard, right? But just for the halibut, let’s consider the relatively uncomplicated facts of the case. A Florida official (Florida again!) found that John Yates had caught 72 red grouper that were smaller than the legal limit. Yates didn’t give a carp that he’d been ordered to hang onto these fish, and ordered his crew to pitch them over the side. Yates was subsequently indicted, in pertinent part for obstruction of justice in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1519, and convicted beyond a reasonable trout.
Yates’s enterprising counsel thought that there was something fishy about using the obstruction of justice statute, which usually focuses on documents or records, to prosecute someone for destroying fish. You see, while the statute allows for the destruction of “tangible things” to fall within its ambit, there are a grouper of people who believe that the legislative intent behind that statute includes only items used to preserve information.
During the argument, both sides floundered and each school of thought took fire from the Supremes. Neither side came out betta. Yates couldn’t tuna out his odd construction that suggests that you could be prosecuted for destroying a letter from a murder victim but not the murder weapon itself. But the Supremes could not get past the reel fear that an expansive reading of the statute would lead to overbroad and unintentionally crappie results. In particular, Justice Scalia appeared to have haddock up to here with the government’s interpretation, while Justice Kagan minnowed down the statutory language and appeared to swallow that argument hook, line, and sinker. Justice Thomas – as is his customary roe during a herring – remained quiet and appeared to mullet over.
You see, from their perch, the Supremes see a broad statute that contains a 20-year penalty for even the most minor conduct. But from the Justice Department’s standpoint, this isn’t rocket science or what even a brain turgeon would do – the plain language of “tangible things” is what the Court must goby.
Even though the case is presented in peculiar packaging, the issue is an important one. Consider: A bank robber could destroy his actual getaway char but not a picture of the getaway gar? It is hard to like that roughy result. But equally hard to like – not to tarpon the same point—was the sweeping nature of the statute if the government’s construction was deemed correct.
Either way, we’ll have to wait until June to find out what the ruling eel be. Assuming that the world doesn’t end, of course. Which it will if the controversy surrounding Kim Kardashian and the bass is any indication.