Judges Should Cite Dr. Seuss More Often (And Not Just For His Birthday)

Yates v. United StatesHave 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:Quote from Kagan Opinion (2)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.


  1. Dr Seuss was a great author, my parents always read his books to me. His catchy words and phrases are really what got me into reading. I wish he wrote more towards teenagers also!

    1. Dr. Seuss’s tongue twisters sometimes trip me up while I’m reading his words aloud to my kids, but it’s all part of the fun. My girls really enjoy the Dr. Seuss books we have. Thanks for stopping by!

    1. I’ve wondered whether Dr. Seuss is as popular in other countries. Other children’s book authors haven’t quite made the leap across the pond. For example, many Americans have no idea who Enid Blyton was!

  2. I read an article not too long ago about how the Court’s decision may impact Tsarnaev’s trial for the Boston Marathon bombing. It will be interesting to see how that plays out.

    Dr. Seuss is very popular in our house. 🙂

    1. That’s very interesting! I hadn’t realized there would be implications for Tsarnaev’s two friends who discarded his backpack (I”m inserting a link for others who stumble on this conversation: http://www.bostonglobe.com/metro/2015/02/25/tsarnaev-friend-could-freed-from-prison-under-supreme-court-ruling-attorney-says/4fCgU8yU1tPpLAPQu0LkLL/story.html). I agree with the defense that the Yates decision is problematic for the prosecution.

      On a side note, I am no fan of U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz (for the reasons listed here: http://www.litigationandtrial.com/2015/01/articles/attorney/president-carmen-ortiz/). I just hate seeing her name in print.

  3. Justice Kagan just became a little more human to me. 🙂 By the way, Dr. Seuss books make an excellent resource for people who learn English as a second language (once they get over the tongue twisters).

    1. “Justice Kagan just became a little more human to me.” So very true.

      It makes sense that Dr. Seuss’s books would be an excellent resource for English language learners, but those tongue twisters are daunting! I grew up reading Dr. Seuss, and I’m STILL nervous about reading some of the books aloud. In “There’s a Wocket in my Pocket,” for example, I get tripped up because the made-up word comes before the real word. So, if I say the made-up word wrong, then it doesn’t rhyme with what follows it! My kids don’t seem to mind, though. 🙂

  4. My mother always read us The Birthday Book on our birthdays (and we all still recite parts of it now). As a tall person, I still appreciate the sentiment that the best pet is the tallest of all-est.

    1. What a lovely birthday tradition! I imagine my very tall daughter would like that too. I’ve ordered the book for her. That’s one we didn’t have, and her birthday is coming up.

  5. I think it is great when a judge pulls from things that the common man can relate to. In this instance, Dr. Seuss fits. I can only guess that the next one will be a deforestation case (The Lorax) or food poisoning/preservatives (Green Eggs and Ham.) A family member went to out daughters books once and pulled out the beloved Green Eggs and Ham. I asked him what he was doing and his reply? “I am getting my education.”
    On a different note, I once read that a justice referred to Aliens finding fossils of the human race which would lead them to believe that a cell phone was an extension of the human anatomy. The moral here? Judges, even Supreme Court Justices, are human too.

    1. Your comment made me laugh!
      It is nice when the Justices do something to show us that they’re human. It would be great to see the Court cite The Lorax, though only about 4 of them probably get the point of that story.

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