Have you ever wondered how courts interpret statutes? Judges usually claim that they apply “traditional tools of statutory construction” to decide what laws mean. It’s a tedious and often arbitrary process.** U.S. Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan, however, managed to make it a smidge more interesting earlier this week when she cited Dr. Seuss in her analysis of a provision of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, the law Congress passed in response to the 2001 Enron scandal (Remember that financial accounting nightmare?).
In her dissenting opinion in Yates v. United States, in which our highest court addressed the issue of whether a fish is a “tangible object” under Sarbanes-Oxley, Justice Kagan wrote:The case had to do with a fisherman off the Gulf Coast who ordered his crew to throw undersized red grouper overboard after being caught by federal agents with the small fry. The fisherman argued that a criminal charge under Sarbanes-Oxley was improper because that law, which prohibited the destruction of evidence, pertained to corporate and accounting deception, not fishing. The fish he tossed over were not “tangible things,” he argued, because “tangible things” in Sarbanes-Oxley referred to “tangible things” that contained information, like a record or document.
In the “plurality” opinion, which means a majority of the justices agreed on the result but not on the reasoning, the Supreme Court sided with the fisherman. He’s lucky that Kagan’s humorous use of Dr. Seuss in the dissent — her attempt to show a more conventional understanding of “tangible” — wasn’t more persuasive.
Still, Kagan’s citation to Dr. Seuss demonstrates the author’s enduring impact on our society more than two decades after his death. Most of us have read at least one, if not many, of Dr. Seuss’s classics. He published a minimum of 44 children’s books, which have been translated into many languages and have become the basis for television programs and movies.
On Monday, March 2nd, Dr. Seuss (whose real name was Theodor Seuss Geisel) would’ve turned 111-years-old. That day is not only his birthday, but also the National Education Association’s Read Across America Day, a literacy campaign that encourages every child to read on March 2nd—and hopefully every day thereafter!
Dr. Seuss’s playful language and illustrations are a great way to engage early readers, who have a multitude of Seussian classics to enjoy like One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish and The Cat in the Hat. Soon there will be one more, What Pet Should I Get, a previously unpublished children’s book Dr. Seuss may have written between 1958 and 1962. Apparently, his wife found it and other unpublished works shortly after his death, but misplaced these items until 2013. What Pet Should I Get will be available this July.
Maybe our Supreme Court will cite it next term. ;)
So, what are your plans for March 2nd? Do you have a favorite Dr. Seuss book?
*Top Image: From the cover of One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish by Dr. Seuss.
**Here’s SCOTUS Blog’s explanation of Yates v. United States. It’s amusing that all three opinions in this case — Ginsburg’s plurality, Alito’s concurrence, and Kagan’s dissent — purport to apply the rules of statutory construction but reach different results. It goes to show that “statutory interpretation” is really just a crapshoot.
Mr. A.M.B. explained the opinion as follows:
Seventy-two fish came out of the sea.
Their inches were many, but not quite twenty.
“These fish are too small,” said the government,
So he dumped them at sea, to avoid punishment.
He should have just kept the fish, you see,
Because they charged him with Sarbanes-Oxley.
They went to the courts, up to the Supreme,
To see if “thing” means what it would seem.
The Justices voted to settle the score.
There were four, then four, then one more.
Four said a “thing” is a “thing,” it can’t be denied.
Four said a “thing” must be like other things described.
(One said that same thing again, I don’t know why.)
Many have made up stories about what they fish,
But few can say they were absolved by ejusdem generis.