Friday, February 27, 2015

King v. Burwell and Yates v. United States

Does the Supreme Court decision save Obamacare from the King decision? A review of the Yates case and it's relation:

I have previously reviewed the King case here and here.

Patterico suggests that the decision in Yates v. United States may reveal the Court's stand on the upcoming King case. I don't think Patterico is right on the issue:

The facts of the case break down simply; Yates, a fishing captain, got caught with some undersized fish . Instead of bringing the fish to shore as ordered, he dumped them, and was charged with violating a part of Sarbanes-Oxley, a law passed to stop future Enrons, and dealing with document and record destruction and fabrication. The law includes a list of document types, storage media, "or other tangible objects."

The Court found that the phrase "other tangible objects" didn't include fish because:

1) It was included in a section of law related to document destruction and alteration, and so is the section that section is in.

2) The chapter the law is placed in has several other prohibitions on the destruction of specific kinds of evidence immediately before the section at issue. Other additions to the law went sections with broader coverage.

3) Congress added laws later that created similar restrictions for other things. If the law at issue was really that broad, Congress wouldn't have had to pass additional legislation covering those extra things.

4) The Court works to avoid rendering law meaningless or redundant, especially when both pieces of the law are in the same bill. (This is called "surplusage") If "Other tangible objects" covers everything, many statutes would be rendered pointless.

5) The prohibited acts include falsifying or making a false entry in a record or document. Well, a fish is not a record or document. It's a fish. You can't make a false entry on it.

6) The list opens with "any record or document." The rest of the list is characterized by that opening. "Any tangible record" is used within the context of record-keeping.

7) The verbs used in the bill, especially "falsify" and "make a false entry in", are really only used in relation to record-keeping.

8) General words that follow specific ones are bound by the specific words. The Court cites another list, of activities that threaten physical injury followed by an "or other" category, that was limited to only similar crimes, not crimes generally.

9) A broad reading would eliminate the restriction to documents and records. Again, surplusage.

10) It is unlikely that Congress would put a wide-ranging evidence maintenance law into a provision regarding financial reporting.

Lastly, if there was confusion about what the law meant, it should be resolved in favor of the defendant. (Rule of Lenity)

These case-specific reasons are the justifications for the Court's holding in this case. Lenity has no bearing in the King case (as King is not a criminal case), and surplusage cuts deeply against the government in the King case and is a core component of the Plaintiff's argument. In both cases, the Government argues that the Court should adopt a wide-reaching and ad-hoc interpretation of the law to serve the Government's ends.

Justice Alito's concurrence echoes some of the major themes of the plurality opinion focusing on "other tangible objects" as a catch-all for, particularly, electronic storage media that could be used to maintain records and documents. He also repeats the Plurality's arguments about verb usage and section titles.

The dissent, on the other hand, focuses on the plain meaning of the words "tangible objects", and argues that the context, including the use of the words in other contexts within the law elsewhere.

This is also helpful to the King case, as a focus of the plain language of the law in the King case decides the case in favor of the Plaintiffs. The Plaintiffs in the King case make both arguments, and the Government makes arguments related to purpose and anomalies in King. Only the argument about the title is potentially harmful, but that argument is only one of many, and the argument would likely not have an impact.

In short, I think the Yates decision supports, rather than harms, the Plaintiff's position in King.

But Patterico's belief that the GOP's surrender caucus will immediately move to undercut a hard-fought victory in the King case is well-founded.

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