The US Supreme Court today overturned the obstruction of justice conviction of the Arthur Andersen accounting firm. This comes too late, of course, to save Andersen, which was largely destroyed by the conviction, but it nonetheless injects some common sense back into the rules around withholding information from the government (it can be legal, you know, a fact which the SCOTUS felt the feds needed to be reminded of) and document disposal (a topic on which I spend far too much of my time).
In a unanimous opinion, justices said the former Big Five accounting firm’s June 2002 obstruction-of-justice conviction – which virtually destroyed Andersen – was improper. The decision said jury instructions at trial were too vague and broad for jurors to determine correctly whether Andersen obstructed justice.
. . .
[I]n his opinion, Rehnquist noted that it is not necessarily wrong for companies to instruct employees to destroy documents, even if the intent is in part to keep information from the government.
Like a mother who advises a son to invoke his right against compelled self-incrimination out of fear he might be convicted, “persuading” an employee to withhold information is not “inherently malign,” Rehnquist wrote.
“The instructions also diluted the meaning of ‘corruptly’ so that it covered innocent conduct,” Rehnquist said.
The Andersen case was of a piece, really, with Martha Stewart’s conviction. Both were convicted, essentially, of failing to cooperate in their own prosecution. Give Martha cred for serving her time, but I wonder if she wouldn’t have won out on appeal. Eventually.