Arthur Andersen v. United States
In Arthur Andersen LLP v. United States, 544 U.S. 696 (2005), the unanimous U.S. Supreme Court reversed a conviction of the accounting firm Arthur Andersen that arose out of the Enron scandal and prosecutions.
As Enron Corporation's financial difficulties became public in 2001, petitioner Arthur Andersen LLP, Enron's auditor, instructed its employees to destroy documents pursuant to its document retention policy. A jury found that this action made petitioner guilty of violating 18 U.S.C. §§ 1512(b)(2)(A) and (B). These sections make it a crime to "knowingly use intimidation or physical force, threaten, or corruptly persuade another person ... with intent to ... cause" that person to "withhold" documents from, or "alter" documents for use in, an "official proceeding." After the The Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed, the Supreme Court reversed.
The Court held that the jury instructions failed to convey properly the elements of a "corrup[t] persua[sion]" conviction under § 1512(b).
Chief Justice William Rehnquist wrote the opinion for the Court. By then Arthur Andersen had gone out of business and the decision had little practical impact on the parties before it.
The opinion, however, is an important precedent protecting some very limited types of lawful withholding of testimony, or information relevant to testimony. Chief Justice Rehnquist wrote that:
- Indeed, "persuading" a person "with intent to . . . cause" that person to "withhold" testimony or documents from a Government proceeding or Government official is not inherently malign. Consider, for instance, a mother who suggests to her son that he invoke his right against compelled self-incrimination, see U.S. Const., Amdt. 5, or a wife who persuades her husband not to disclose marital confidences, see Trammel v. United States, 445 U.S. 40, 63 L. Ed. 2d 186, 100 S. Ct. 906 (1980). Nor is it necessarily corrupt for an attorney to "persuade" a client "with intent to ... cause" that client to "withhold" documents from the Government.
As a practical matter, of course, legal advice should be always be obtained for a particular factual situation.