It’s Not Just The Science Laws That Can Affect Science

Over at Knight Science Journalism Tracker, Paul Raeburn is understandably upset about the poor coverage of a Supreme Court case involving fish.  He’s complaining about how those covering the case appear more interested in puns than in the impacts of illegal fishing, and he’s got a point.  For proper coverage over the phenomenon that prompted the case, you need to check out David Shiffman’s article over at Southern Fried Science.

The case in question, Yates vs. United States, was heard before the Court last week.  It concerns whether certain provisions of the Sarbannes-Oxley Act apply in a matter involving illegal fishing.  The apparent dissonance (and source of the pescatory bon mots) is that the Act was written in connection with securities fraud and related crimes and the destruction of information connected to those crimes.  The relevant part of the law covers the destruction or falsification of any ‘record, document or tangible object’ with the intent to obstruct an investigation.  The government is claiming that the law covers the destruction of evidence irrespective of the kind of crime.

Frankly, I’m surprised (and remember, IANAL) that there was not a comprehensive federal law for destruction of evidence.  This article from the USA Today suggests that Sarbannes-Oxley has filled that gap on several occasions (apparently contrary to the intentions of former Representative Oxley), while this case appears to be the first to come to the Supreme Court.

As you might guess, the arguments in Court focused on the ‘tangible object’ part of the law, and the lack of language specifying that such objects must be involved in storing information (hard drives being one such item).  The lawyers and the justices discussed the finer points of English as it applies to the law.

The fishing violation alleged in the case started with a conservation officer measuring undersize fish in a catch on board, and demanding they be brought to shore.  The captain allegedly ordered the crew to throw back the undersize fish and replace them with ones of legal size.  That could constitute obstruction of the investigation.

As the case is dealing with 72 undersize fish, a lot of the press coverage has minimized both the nature of the crime and that the Supreme Court was bothering with such ‘small fry.’  But illegal fishing, particularly its impact on marine ecosystems, is a serious problem.  Serious to the tune of $23 billion a year.  Having a law that can address this problem, and with serious penalties, seems appropriate to the scale of the problem.

Personally, I’m happy to see some outside-the-box thinking that affects science in some fashion.  With the rhetoric and theoretical models around science and technology policy not that different from what it was 10 or 20 years ago, it’s good to see some innovation.


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