Yum, grouper.

Fish, Shotguns and Judicial Activism

Noah Feldman is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a professor of constitutional and international law at Harvard University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice David Souter. His books include “Cool War: The Future of Global Competition” and “Divided by God: America’s Church-State Problem -- and What We Should Do About It.”
Read More.
a | A

Is a fish a tangible object? Does a sawed-off shotgun pose serious risk of injury? Laugh if you must, but the U.S. Supreme Court is taking up these questions in a pair of cases that will form another chapter in the saga of our vastly expanding federal criminal law. Funny as the cases may seem -- both funny strange and funny ha-ha -- they illustrate how policy and law constantly interact for a court deeply divided about the nature of statutory interpretation.

The fish case, Yates v. United States, involves a Florida fishing boat that was boarded and found to have 72 undersized grouper aboard. Ordered to bring the fish back to port where they would be used as evidence, the skipper, John Yates, instead threw them overboard and tried to substitute fish that were over the legal size requirement.

The criminal nature of the act seems intuitive. The part that has reached the Supreme Court on appeal stems from Yates's conviction under a provision of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act that punishes anyone who "knowingly alters, destroys, mutilates, conceals, covers up, falsifies, or makes a false entry in any record, document, or tangible object." The government says that Yates destroyed a tangible object, namely the fish. Yates says the law, passed after the Enron scandal, is intended to prohibit shredding documents, not throwing fish into the sea.

The structure of the case is a classic one, described as early as Aristotle: What should be done when the law speaks generally, and a case arises that falls within the statute's literal meaning but not its sense? An ancient example was a law that criminalizes striking somebody with an iron object: Does it include a blow with a hand that happened to be wearing an iron ring?

Aristotle, followed by today's purpose-driven interpreters such as Justice Stephen Breyer, believed the solution is to interpret the law as its authors would have intended had they only thought of the future case. Others, such as Justice Antonin Scalia, reject the idea that the judge should do anything but apply the law as it is written. Ordinarily, you could expect the case to come down to this division, and to come out 5-4, depending on what Justice Anthony Kennedy thinks of it.

In Yates's case, things are more complicated. Breyer may well reason that the underlying purpose of the statute is not to protect documents from destruction but to protect evidence in federal cases from being destroyed by defendants. If so, he would uphold Yates's conviction insofar as Yates was clearly trying to get away with a crime by getting rid of the evidence.

For his part, Scalia may find himself affected by a special principle that he applies only in criminal cases: the "rule of lenity," according to which an ambiguous statute should be interpreted in favor of the criminal defendant. If Scalia were to follow this principle, he might overturn the conviction.

Of course, whether to apply the rule of lenity depends on whether you think the law is ambiguous. The government says it isn't: You can hold a fish, so it's a tangible object. If Scalia thinks the ambiguity -- if any -- derives from context, not language, then according to his own jurisprudence, he shouldn't apply the rule of lenity, and should uphold the conviction.

The shotgun case, Johnson v. United States, is no less challenging -- and no less odd. Samuel James Johnson, founder of something called the Aryan Liberation Movement, was arrested after he made the mistake of telling an undercover federal agent about his plans for attacking various non-Aryan targets. He was in possession of weapons including an AK-47 -- and that possession was a felony that would ordinarily have gotten him roughly 10 years in prison. But Johnson had three prior convictions. And under the federal Armed Career Criminal Act, a fourth conviction for a violent felony carries a minimum of 15 years.

The law defines "violent felony" to include a range of obvious crimes -- plus any "conduct that presents a serious potential risk of physical injury to another." One of Johnson's prior state convictions was for possession of a short-barreled shotgun. Did owning the illegal shotgun pose a serious potential risk?

You won't be surprised to hear what the gun lobby thinks about that in its friend of the court briefs -- but that's not really the important point here. The crucial question is, what's the meaning of the so-called residual clause of the repeat offender law? How should the courts define what counts as a serious risk of potential injury?

The Supreme Court has been answering that question on a case by case basis -- a practice disliked by, you guessed it, Justice Scalia. He thinks the law is unconstitutionally vague, because it doesn't provide defendants sufficient notice or the courts adequate guidance. It's easy to see why the law worries Scalia. He wants the courts to follow the law's literal meaning, not its policy aims -- but it's almost impossible not to inject policy when the law tells you to evaluate "serious potential risk of physical injury."

The purpose-oriented justices look at the interpretive issue and see business as usual. To them, the courts must always consider policy and purpose, whether the subject is tangible fish or injurious firearms.

Who's right is a deep question of jurisprudence. But as a practical matter, the cases show that Scalia's approach, devoted to opposing judicial activism, won't work when Congress actively wants the judiciary to make the law up as it goes along. If Scalia wants to avoid relying on his own judgment, he has to strike down the law as unconstitutional. And that isn't judicial restraint. It's activism.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Noah Feldman at nfeldman7@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Stacey Shick at sshick@bloomberg.net