February 25, 2015
Justice Kagan Cites Dr. Seuss To Show Fish Are 'Tangible,' Court Rules They Aren't

Dr. Seuss is rarely cited by the Supreme Court Justices, but when the case revolves around the whether fish are a "tangible object," it's time to bring out the big guns. The unusual Yates v. United States case gives a brief glimpse of the labored way words become redefined in laws, but it will probably be remembered most for fish jokes.

According to Slate Magazine, officials caught a Floridian fisherman named Yates illegally reeling in undersized grouper fish. The authorities warned Yates not to throw away the little groupers, since that would ruin their whole case against him. But the captain ignored the officers. He ordered his crew to dump the undersized fish, and then replace them with longer groupers, which can be caught legally.

When the officers saw that the undersized fish were gone, they charged the fisherman under the Sarbanes-Oxley law. Enacted after the Enron scandal, the law bars defendants from disposing of "any record, document, or tangible object" that would be used as evidence in a federal court case.

Yates fought the charges, eventually finding his way to victory in the Supreme Court.

In a 5-4 decision that divided the typically partisan body, the Justices ruled that the law didn't apply to Yates' fish because they were not "tangible objects" in the context of the law.

You might be thinking, in what way are fish "intangible?" As objects that someone can see, touch, and (unfortunately) smell, they easily meet the common definition of the word.

According to USA Today, Ruth Bader Ginsburg explained in her written opinion that there's no doubt that fish are tangible, but to admit them under the Sarbanes-Oxley law would "cut (the law) loose from its financial-fraud mooring."

She quoted Judge Learned Hand, "words are chameleons which reflect the color of their environment."

Justice Elena Kagan would have none of that roundabout word redefining, writing "a 'tangible object' is an object that's tangible." To back up her opinion, she cited Dr. Seuss citing in her opinion, "see generally Dr. Seuss, One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish."

Despite her insistence on calling tangible things tangible, the justice did concede that the law was badly written and gave far too much leeway for authorities to make arrests.

Although Seuss fans can rejoice that the Doctor's books can be cited to support court rationale, it seems unfortunate that there aren't more Dr. Seuss references in cases.

For future consideration, Dr. Seuss wrote in-depth on seemingly modern social issues. In the Dr. Seuss classic From Yertle the Turtle and Other Stories, he wrote poetically about class inequality in the justice system.

"You know up on top

You are seeing great sights,

But down at the bottom

we, too, should have rights."

Likewise, Dr. Seuss may have persuaded the early 19th century Supreme Court into a more anti-slavery stance, had he built a time machine and released Yertle the Turtle and Other Stories a bit early.
"And the turtles, of course...

all the turtles are free

As turtles and, maybe,

all creators should be."

Dr. Seuss had a number of words for environmental activists too -- about 17.
"Unless someone like you

cares a whole awful lot,

nothing is going to get better.

It's not."

That Dr. Seuss quote was from The Lorax. As previously reported by the Inquisitr, The Lorax movie adaptation came under heavy scrutiny from conservative media outlets, perhaps making it a bit too divisive for lawmaking.

In any case, hopefully Dr. Seuss will be used for more flippant Supreme Court dissenting opinions, because (sadly) his books often make more sense than court decisions.

[Image Credit: Getty Images]