June 02, 2005

Arthur Andersen v. US decided for Petitioner (tip to coyote)

The Supreme Court ruled in favor of Arthur Andersen's appeal against its conviction. The decision was unanimous. Rehnquist, writing for the Court, says that the Fifth Circuit's jury instructions were so broad that it included lawful and innocent conduct.

The definition of "corruptly" was originally set as "knowingly and dishonestly, with the specific intent to subvert or undermine the integrity" of a proceeding (in this case the government's investigative work). The 5th circuit changed it around to define the word as "knowingly, with the specific intent to subvert, undermine or impede the integrity" of a proceeding. They removed 'dishonestly' and added 'impede' in there. It's a very low threshold to say someone 'impeded' a proceeding and it's not entirely clear that impeding the investigation is always illegal under the statute in question. But by removing 'dishonestly' from the definition the 5th Circuit basically said that somebody who thought they were doing legal and honest activities could be found guilty. The court's instructions to the jury even said that explicitly.

Further, the 5th Circuit's instructions removed the requirement that there be any connection between the destruction of documents and an investigative proceeding. This is just silly because companies dealing with huge volumes of paperwork have to destroy documents before tossing them out. It's simply a normal part of honest accounting business, since they can't keep the papers around forever and they have to be shredded for client confidentiality. By removing the necessity of a nexus between destroying the documents and fear of investigative proceeding, the court, at the Government's insistence, expanded the definition beyond reasonable interpretations of the statute.

Naturally, SCOTUS had to find for petitioner in this situation, because the 5th Circuit screwed it up so badly.

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