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Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Picking and choosing

I assume you've heard the phrase "picking and choosing" to describe the widely varied interpretations and applications of religious writings. We all pick and choose, to some extent. Today's ruling of the U.S. Supreme Court in Yates v. U.S. makes the point again. It's serious business because the question is related to a criminal conviction. Bear with me; the facts of the case are captivating.

After the Enron affair in which the deliberate destruction of financial records impeded the government's ability to prosecute, Congress adopted a law that makes it a serious crime when someone

"...knowingly alters, destroys, mutilates, conceals, covers up, falsifies, or makes a false entry in any record, document, or tangible object with the intent to impede, obstruct, or influence"
a federal investigation.

Seems appropriate, right? But the law was applied to a Florida fisherman accused of catching undersized red grouper and then discarding the incriminating fish at dockside. A jury convicted him, and he appealed. The issue upon appeal was the proper interpretation of the term "tangible object".

The majority of five justices ruled that "tangible object" must be interpreted in the context of the law as illuminated by congressional intent — which clearly was aimed at bank statements, not sea creatures. Therefore they reversed the conviction. Four justices, however, opined that "tangible object" does indeed include fish and that even if Congress ineptly composed the law, the wording plainly speaks for itself and the Court should not intervene.

Three liberals (Breyer, Ginsburg, Sotomayor) and two conservatives (Alito, Roberts) voted for contextual interpretation. One liberal (Kagan), one moderate (Kennedy), and two conservatives (Scalia, Thomas) voted for standalone interpretation. It's rare when the Court splits 5-4 on non-partisan lines, and it makes me wonder about their Myers-Briggs results.