February 25, 2015

This morning's catch at the Supreme Court of the United States

By Mark Miller Senior Attorney
With PLF's help, the sun should set on a fishy federal government prosecution.
The sun sets on a fishy federal prosecution.

The news this morning brought word that the Supreme Court of the United States ruled in favor of Captain John Yates of the Miss Katie in his eight-year battle with the federal government about some undersized fish he caught. Pacific Legal Foundation filed an amicus brief supporting Captain Yates, and find much to like about the plurality opinion by Justice Ginsburg, and the concurrence by Justice Alito (particularly the result).

The dissent by Justice Kagan, however, perhaps hauls in the biggest fish in the waters of this case. Most of the back-and-forth among the justices concerns statutory interpretation, and whether a fish is a tangible object within the meaning of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act. But at the close of her opinion, Justice Kagan notes that the justices’ debate hides the real issue beneath the surface: “overcriminalization and excessive punishment in the U.S. Code.” To Justice Kagan, and her three fellow dissenters, the real explanation for the decision lies in the fact that Captain Yates faced twenty years in prison for throwing fish overboard—a potential penalty that gave “prosecutors too much leverage and sentencers too much discretion.”

If that point sounds familiar to regular readers of the blog, it should: PLF made just this argument here, here, and here, and elaborated on the argument in the amicus brief we filed in the case last summer.

Pacific Legal Foundation filed that amicus brief on behalf of six different commercial fishing organizations from across the country. The Florida Keys Commercial Fishermen’s Association, Southeastern Fisheries Association, Garden State Seafood Association, Commercial Fishermen of Santa Barbara, California Abalone Association, and California Sea Urchin Commission all stood up for Mr. Yates and told the federal government that commercial fishermen like Captain Yates should not face the risk of big government prosecution gone amok. All of these groups, and PLF, find today’s decision immensely gratifying.

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California Sea Urchin Commission v. Combs

When the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service asked Congress for permission in the 1980s to introduce sea otters into Southern California waters, Congress agreed but required protections for lawful fishing activity. In 2012, the Service declared that they would no longer honor the fishing industry protections. On behalf of sea urchin and abalone divers, lobster trappers, and other fishermen, PLF asked the U.S. Supreme Court to review the case to enforce the separation of powers in the Constitution. The Supreme Court denied the petition on October 29, 2018.

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