Law’s little spiders: building the seamless web

Note: This is the last of five blog posts covering Module 2 of my summer “Tiger Law” course.

Thus far, we have described law as a “seamless web” and have explored three major areas of this massive tangled cobweb: State law, federal law, and international law. But Maitland’s memorable and poignant metaphor has one big blind spot: who are the adroit and cunning little spiders weaving such a large and intricate legal cobweb?

Part E of Module 2 is devoted to this creative aspect of the seamless web: the courts or what I like to call “the problem of legal interpretation.” If you have been paying close attention to my previous blog posts on State, federal, and international law, you will have noticed that in addition to existing treaties like the International Whaling Convention or actual laws like Florida’s animal cruelty law or the federal Endangered Species Act, I have also talked about legal disputes and courts, cases like Wilkerson v. Florida (the State case in which Florida’s animal cruelty law was challenged under the vagueness doctrine) and Lujan v. Defenders of Wildlife (the federal case that tells us when a private party can sue the government to enforce its own laws).

In short, legislatures, autocrats, and customs are not the only sources of law; we also need courts and judges to help us interpret inevitable ambiguities in the law and to help fit each individual part of the law into the seamless whole. As a result, our courts are also, for all practical purposes, a major source of law. Accordingly, to further illustrate the indispensable role that courts play in our legal system, Part E of Module 2 introduces students to one of my favorite fish cases of all time–Yates v. United States, a case involving the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002, a federal business fraud law often referred to as the “SOX Act” or just “SOX” for short–as well as two videos on the problem of legal interpretation, one in which I lay out the facts of Yates v. U.S. and another in which I explain how this fish case was decided by the Supreme Court of the United States.

Although this case does not involve big cats or other exotic animals, the Yates in Yates v. U.S. was a commercial fisherman who, like Joe Exotic, was charged with committing a federal crime. In brief, Captain Yates and his crew were fishing in the Gulf of Mexico when a federal Fish & Wildlife agent conducted an offshore inspection of their catch and found that it contained undersized red grouper in violation of federal wildlife regulations. The federal agent instructed Captain Yates to keep the undersized fish segregated; Yates, however, decided to get rid of the evidence and instructed his crew to throw the undersized fish overboard.

When they returned to shore, Yates was charged under the SOX Act, a law designed to punish financial fraud on Wall Street. This law states that a person may be fined or imprisoned for up to 20 years if he “knowingly alters, destroys, mutilates, conceals, covers up, falsifies, or makes a false entry in any record, document, or tangible object with the intent to impede, obstruct, or influence” a federal investigation. At trial, Yates’s lawyer sought an acquittal, arguing that fish were not tangible objects related to record-keeping or financial fraud.

If you want to see how this fish case played out, I am posting my second video below. FYI: Looking ahead to Module 3, the next module of this course will be devoted to something called “the common law.” For now, it suffices to say that the common law includes such areas of private law as property, torts, and contracts and is so important that it deserves its own separate module. Hasta pronto.

About F. E. Guerra-Pujol

When I’m not blogging, I am a business law professor at the University of Central Florida.
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1 Response to Law’s little spiders: building the seamless web

  1. Pingback: Maitland’s metaphor: law as a seamless web | prior probability

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