(CN) - The Supreme Court was in stitches today during a tortuous but lighthearted inquisition on the definition of "object" and the moral corruptness of wrongful fish disposal.
An "anti-shredding" provision of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, enacted in the wake of the Enron scandal, was at issue.
The section prohibits altering a record or "tangible object" to obstruct an investigation, but the question that kept the judges laughing was whether the prohibition applies to fish.
John Yates, a commercial fisherman operating in the Gulf of Mexico was convicted of knowingly disposing of undersized red grouper to prevent the government from taking lawful custody and control of them. The 11th Circuit upheld his 30-day prison term and three years' supervised release, and he received certiorari from the Supreme Court this April.
Yates' counsel, John Badalamenti, focused on the ambiguity of the term "tangible object," according to a transcript published by the court.
"The natural, sensible and contextual reading is that the phrase 'record document or tangible object' is confined to records, documents and devices designed to preserve information, the very matters involved in the Enron debacle," he said.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg began what would be a long, tortuous exchange. "So you think there's a difference between 'tangible object' and 'other object?'" she asked.
"Yes, there is," Badalamenti said. "The phrase 'record document and tangible objects' refers to recordkeeping. Another difference is that - a common-sense standpoint - is that records can only be maintained on tangible mediums."
The justices did not appear to find the matter so "common-sense."
Justice Sonia Sotomayor invoked the Internet, noting: "you could falsify Internet entries, or things that are in the cloud, those are intangible items."
"No, those are tangible items, Your Honor, because they are stored on a hard drive somewhere," Badalamenti said. "The cloud is not existing above."
Justice Anthony Kennedy put in: "Suppose a typewriter were used to prepare an incriminating document. The document and the typewriter were destroyed, would that be covered?"
"The typewriter would not be," Badalamenti said. "The piece of paper that the typewriter is inscribing on is a device that's designed to preserve information."
Justice Samuel Alito joined the chorus: "What about destroying a brand-new empty filing cabinet?"
"That is not a device that's used to preserve information," Badalamenti replied.
Justice Ginsburg wondered if the provision would apply to a murder knife.
"Congress didn't intend to sweep the knife into..." Badalamenti began.
Chief Justice John Roberts cut him off: "What if the knife had the defendant's name on it? Is that, destroying the knife, is that altering, destroying a record?"
"It's evidence, but it's not a - it's not a document, it's not a record or otherwise," Badalamenti said.
Justice Elena Kagan brought up a new set of problems regarding the vague difference between "other object" and "tangible object."
"To me, it seems like 'other object' is, if anything, a more classic case of that canon that I can't pronounce the name of, ejusdem whatever," Kagan said.
The court laughed, and Justice Scalia helped: "Generis."
Kagan joined the laughter. "Good," she said, "That's what I count on my colleague for."