The lefties are crowing that today’s decision in Yates v. United States is a Harbinger of Things to Come re: the King v. Burwell ObamaCare case (oral arguments one week away!). Are they right? I’m not sure . . . but it is more than a little distressing to see two conservative justices sign onto opinions that twist language into a pretzel to keep it from meaning what it says.
The opinion is here (.pdf). Basically, the federal government has some absurd regulations that govern the all-important size of grouper that one can catch (and keep) in federal waters. Mr. Yates, a fisherman, had run afoul of these regulations, and a federal inspector was On the Case. The inspector told Yates to keep the too-small fish segregated from the rest until he got to port — but when he got to port, it turned out that he had ordered his crew to defy the agent’s orders, and toss the fish overboard.
You’re not supposed to do that.
The government chose to charge him with a violation of 18 U. S. C. § 1519, which criminalizes the concealment or destruction of “any record, document, or tangible object” with the purpose of impeding a federal investigation. Yates argued that a fish is not a “tangible object” because something something context and blah blah statutory construction.
In essence, the main argument was that the provision was in Sarbanes-Oxley, which was “intended to prohibit, in particular, corporate document-shredding to hide evidence of financial wrongdoing.” But there is some other junk in there, including canons of construction with Latin names and references to things like the title and the location of the provision within the statute.
The Court accepted this mumbo jumbo and held that “tangible object” somehow means that the tangible object must be “one used to record or preserve information.” Having grafted this non-existent qualification onto the statute, the Court found that the fish did not qualify under their new definition, and reversed the conviction.
Justice Kagan rips apart the majority’s arguments (and those of Alito’s concurrence) quite deftly in her dissent.
Are the justices deciding this case with King v. Burwell in mind? Perhaps — some more so than others, I suspect. But the fact is that context is always relevant to statutory language. As Kagan says, nobody really disagrees with that. It’s just that, as applied here, the context and all the other legalistic yapping do not undercut the conclusion that, well, a fish is a tangible object.
End of story.
P.S. If this case frightens you regarding King, be of good cheer. Winning or losing that case won’t matter, it now appears — because, as Orrin Hatch recently made clear, Republicans are going to cave immediately if we win the case:
Hatch said that while Obamacare has hurt millions of people and needs to be ultimately repealed and replaced, Congress should do something in the meantime to mitigate the effects if the high court decides to invalidate that financial aid.
“I don’t think we can stand by and simply let the shortcomings of the law hurt people more,” he said during a speech at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C.
“In the coming days, I will release details of a short-term solution for Americans who may be affected,” Hatch said. “That solution will address immediate concerns and set the stage for a permanent solution in the future.”
Of course. You can’t take the goodies away, so you have to give people “short-term, temporary” subsidies until such time as you develop the political courage to . . . make those subsidies long-term and permanent.
Did anyone really expect anything different?
P.P.S. A limited solution to caving: The Freedom Option.