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Decision in Arthur Andersen v. United States

The Supreme Court issued a quick, unanimous and concise defeat to the Government today in Arthur Andersen v. United States, No. 04-368, overturning the accounting company’s conviction for obstruction of justice. (The case was argued on April 27, the last argument day of the current Term, and the Chief Justice’s opinion for the Court was issued less than five weeks later).

The case arose after officials at Arthur Andersen issued a number of directives requiring employees to adhere to the company’s document retention policy, even though that policy required destruction of documents and even though the firm knew that an SEC investigation was imminent and that the SEC would want access to those destroyed documents. The Government indicted Arthur Andersen under 18 U.S.C. 1512(b)(2), which applies to anyone who “knowingly uses intimidation or physical force, threatens, or corruptly persuades another person . . . with the intent to . . . cause or induce any person to . . alter, destroy, mutilate, or conceal an object with intent to impair the object’s integrity or availability for use in an official proceeding.” Accepting the Government’s position, the district court instructed the jury that Arthur Andersen could be convicted under this provision even it “honestly and sincerely believed that its conduct was lawful” and without proof of any nexus between the document destruction and any particular official proceeding. After receiving these instructions, the jury convicted Arthur Andersen of obstruction.

The Supreme Court held that the jury instructions “failed to convey properly the elements of a “corrup[t] persuas[ion]” conviction under