If only the Supreme Court had accepted cert the likely outcome would have been similar to last week’s Supreme Court decision in Yates v. U.S. in which the court reversed the 11th Circuit’s flawed statutory interpretation of Sarbanes Oxley in the (in)famous are “fish” a “tangible object” case.
“Mindful that in Sarbanes-Oxley, Congress trained its attention on corporate and accounting deception and cover-ups, we conclude that a matching construction of §1519 is in order: A tangible object captured by §1519, we hold, must be one used to record or preserve information.”
“On appeal, the Eleventh Circuit found the text of §1519“plain.” Because “tangible object” was “undefined” in the statute, the Court of Appeals gave the term its “ordinary or natural meaning,” i.e., its dictionary definition, “[h]aving or possessing physical form.”
In the Government’s view, §1519 extends beyond the principal evil motivating its passage. The words of §1519,the Government argues, support reading the provision as a general ban on the spoliation of evidence, covering all physical items that might be relevant to any matter under federal investigation.
Yates urges a contextual reading of §1519, tying “tangible object” to the surrounding words, the placement of the provision within the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, and related provisions enacted at the same time, in particular §1520 and §1512(c)(1). Section 1519, he maintains, targets not all manner of evidence, but records,documents, and tangible objects used to preserve them, e.g., computers, servers, and other media on which information is stored.
We agree with Yates and reject the Government’s unrestrained reading. “Tangible object” in §1519, we conclude, is better read to cover only objects one can use to record or preserve information, not all objects in the physical world.
The ordinary meaning of an “object” that is “tangible,”as stated in dictionary definitions, is “a discrete . . . thing,” Webster’s Third New International Dictionary 1555 (2002), that “possess[es] physical form,” Black’s Law Dictionary 1683 (10th ed. 2014). From this premise, the Government concludes that “tangible object,” as that term appears in §1519, covers the waterfront, including fish from the sea.
Whether a statutory term is unambiguous, however,does not turn solely on dictionary definitions of its component words. Rather, “[t]he plainness or ambiguity of statutory language is determined [not only] by reference to the language itself, [but as well by] the specific context in which that language is used, and the broader context of the statute as a whole.” Robinson v. Shell Oil Co., 519 U. S. 337, 341 (1997). See also Deal v. United States, 508 U. S. 129, 132 (1993) (it is a “fundamental principle of statutory construction (and, indeed, of language itself) that the meaning of a word cannot be determined in isolation, but must be drawn from the context in which it is used”). Ordinarily, a word’s usage accords with its dictionary definition. In law as in life, however, the same words, placed in different contexts, sometimes mean different things.
In short, although dictionary definitions of the words “tangible” and “object” bear consideration, they are not dispositive of the meaning of “tangible object” in §1519.
The legislative history reveals that §1512(c)(1) was drafted and proposed after §1519. See 148 Cong. Rec. 12518, 13088–13089 (2002). The Government argues, and Yates does not dispute, that §1512(c)(1)’s reference to “other object” includes any and every physical object. But if §1519’s reference to “tangible object” already included all physical objects, as the Government and the dissent contend, then Congress had no reason to enact §1512(c)(1): Virtually any act that would violate §1512(c)(1) no doubt would violate §1519 as well, for §1519 applies to “the investigation or proper administration of any matter within the jurisdiction of any department or agency of the United States . . . or in relation to or contemplation of any such matter,” not just to “an official proceeding.”5
The Government acknowledges that, under its reading,§1519 and §1512(c)(1) “significantly overlap.” Brief for United States. Nowhere does the Government explain what independent function §1512(c)(1) would serve if the Government is right about the sweeping scope of §1519. We resist a reading of §1519 that would render superfluous an entire provision passed in proximity as part of the same Act.6 See Marx v. General Revenue Corp., 568 U. S. ___, ___ (2013) (slip op., at 14) (“[T]he canon against surplusage is strongest when an interpretation would render superfluous another part of the same statutory scheme.”).
Had Congress intended “tangible object” in §1519 to be interpreted so generically as to capture physical objects as dissimilar as documents and fish, Congress would have had no reason to refer specifically to “record”or “document.” The Government’s unbounded reading of“tangible object” would render those words misleading surplusage.
Having used traditional tools of statutory interpretation to examine markers of congressional intent within the Sarbanes-Oxley Act and §1519 itself, we are persuaded that an aggressive interpretation of “tangible object” must be rejected. It is highly improbable that Congress would have buried a general spoliation statute covering objects of any and every kind in a provision targeting fraud in financial record-keeping.
Finally, if our recourse to traditional tools of statutory construction leaves any doubt about the meaning of “tangible object,” as that term is used in §1519, we would invoke the rule that “ambiguity concerning the ambit of criminal statutes should be resolved in favor of lenity.” Cleveland v. United States, 531 U. S. 12, 25 (2000) (quoting Rewis v. United States, 401 U. S. 808, 812 (1971)).That interpretative principle is relevant here, where the Government urges a reading of §1519 that exposes individuals to 20-year prison sentences for tampering with any physical object that might have evidentiary value in any federal investigation into any offense, no matter whether the investigation is pending or merely contemplated, or whether the offense subject to investigation is criminal or civil. See Liparota v. United States, 471 U. S. 419, 427 (1985) (“Application of the rule of lenity ensures that criminal statutes will provide fair warning concerning conduct rendered illegal and strikes the appropriate balance between the legislature, the prosecutor, and the court in defining criminal liability.”). In determining the meaning of “tangible object” in §1519, “it is appropriate, before we choose the harsher alternative, to require that Congress should have spoken in language that is clear and definite.” See Cleveland, 531 U. S., at 25 (quoting United States v. Universal C. I. T. Credit Corp., 344 U. S. 218, 222 (1952)). See also Jones v. United States, 529 U. S. 848, 858–859 (2000) (rule of lenity “reinforces” the conclusion that arson of an owner-occupied residence is not subject to federal prosecution under 18 U. S. C. §844(i) because such a residence does not qualify as property “used in” commerce or commerce-affecting activity).
For the reasons stated, we resist reading §1519 expansively to create a coverall spoliation of evidence statute, advisable as such a measure might be. Leaving that important decision to Congress, we hold that a “tangible object” within §1519’s compass is one used to record or preserve information. The judgment of the U. S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit is therefore reversed, and the case is remanded for further proceedings.”