Academic journal article Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology

The Supreme Court's Bipolar Approach to the Interpretation of 18 U.S.C. 1503 and 18 U.S.C. 2232 (C)

Academic journal article Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology

The Supreme Court's Bipolar Approach to the Interpretation of 18 U.S.C. 1503 and 18 U.S.C. 2232 (C)

Article excerpt

I. Introduction

In United States v. Aguilar,(1) the United States Supreme Court ruled on questions regarding the limits of the Omnibus Clause of 18 U.S.C. [sections] 1503,(2) which prohibits a person from endeavoring to obstruct or impede the due administration of justice, and the limits of 18 U.S.C. [sections] 2232(c),(3) which prohibits a person from disclosing a government wiretap to the person targeted under the wiretap. Regarding the Omnibus Clause, the Court held that making false statements to an investigating agent who may or may not testify before a grand jury does not violate the statute.(4) In reaching its conclusion, the Court used the rule of lenity to place a new limit--the nexus requirement--on the Omnibus Clause.(5) Under the nexus requirement, a violation of the Omnibus Clause does not occur unless a person's efforts have the "natural and probable" consequence of obstructing justice.(6) Regarding [sections] 2232(c), the Court held that a person can violate the statute by disclosing an expired wiretap.(7) The Court based its interpretation on the plain language of [sections] 2232(c).(8)

The Note argues that the Court reached the correct results regarding both statutory questions. The Court, however, should have used different reasoning regarding its interpretation of the Omnibus Clause of [sections] 1503. First, this Note argues that the Court should not have used the rule of lenity to place a new limit--the "nexus requirement"--on the Omnibus Clause. Both the plain language of the Omnibus Clause and prior Supreme Court decisions make it clear that the statute is not violated by making false statements to a person when there is only a mere possibility that the person might testify at a judicial proceeding. Second, this Note argues that the Court's interpretation of the plain language of [sections] 2232 (c) is correct; a person can violate the statute by disclosing an expired wiretap. Furthermore, this interpretation is also consistent with congressional intent behind [sections] 2232 (c) to protect the secrecy of government wiretaps. An investigation may contain several wiretaps including both existing and expired wiretaps. Thus, protecting the secrecy of the expired wiretaps also protects the secrecy of the existing wiretaps.

II. Background

A. THE HISTORY OF [sections] 1503

1. The Origin of [sections] 1503

The language of [sections] 1503 dates back to the Act of 1789, 1 Stat. 73, 83.(9) The Act of 1789 provided that federal courts of the United States "shall have power . . . to punish by fine or imprisonment, at the discretion of said courts, all contempts of authority in any cause or hearing before the same."(10) Due to the broad language of the statute, it was not long before some federal judges began abusing their authority under it. The most notable case involved James H. Peck, a federal district judge.(11) Judge Peck had imprisoned and disbarred an attorney for publishing critical remarks regarding one of Judge Peck's opinions.(12) In response to Judge Peck's action, the House of Representatives initiated impeachment proceedings against him.(13) However, on January 28, 1831, by a vote of twenty-one to twenty, the Senate acquitted Judge Peck.(14)

Despite its unsuccessful bid to impeach Judge Peck, Congress decided that it needed to sharply delineate the broad undefined powers of the inferior courts under the Act of 1789.(15) As a result, Congress passed a bill that became known as the Act of March 2, 1831.(16) This Act, which was titled "[a]n Act declaratory of the law concerning contempts of court," contained two sections.(17) In Section 1,(18) Congress narrowly defined the criminal cases that could be tried using summary punishment.(19) These criminal cases involved contempts of court occurring within or near the vicinity of the courtroom.(20) Under Section 2,(21) which was added by the Senate as an amendment to Section 1,(22) Congress defined a much broader category of criminal cases involving contempts of court occurring outside the courtroom. …

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