Brief filed: 02/26/2019
Martoma v. United States
United States Supreme Court; Case No. 18-972
Decision below 894 F.3d 64 (2nd Cir. Aug. 23, 2017, amended June 25, 2018)
Over 200 years ago, this Court declared that there are no federal common law crimes. Although that rule remains in place, the intervening years have witnessed the creation of quasi-common law crimes. These are crimes that rest on statutory terms so broad and indefinite that courts are left to define the elements of the offense with little or no guidance from the statutory text. Quasi-common law crimes shift the task of defining what conduct deserves "the moral condemnation of the community" from the legislature, where it belongs, to the courts. This Court has sought to remedy the lack of fair warning inherent in quasi-common law crimes through a process of interpretation that often resembles common law crime definition. Insider trading liability--and, in particular, the liability of tippers and tippees at issue here—has followed the same pattern. In the tipper/tippee insider trading context, therefore--as in the antitrust and honest services contexts--the Court, rather than Congress, has determined the elements of the crime. And as in those contexts, a person seeking to conform his conduct to the law when trading on a tip of nonpublic information will learn virtually nothing from the statutory text. He must turn instead to Dirks' "simple and clear 'guiding principle' for determining tippee liability" and act accordingly. The Court's definition of these and other quasi-common law crimes--its creation of "simple and clear guiding principle[s]" for determining whether an offense has been committed--ameliorates (but does not eliminate) the fair warning danger such crimes present. But the Court's decisions perform that function only if the lower courts treat their operative language as if Congress had included that language in the statute itself. If lower courts can modify the Court's "guiding principles" materially, as the court of appeals did here, and thus broaden the scope of criminal liability, then the lack of fair warning inherent in quasi-common law crimes will remain. It is therefore essential to individual liberty that the Court rigorously police the lower courts' application of its decisions defining quasi-common law crimes. The need for the Court's intervention is particularly acute here, because the court of appeals endorsed an expansion of the tipper/tippee insider trading crime that the Court declined to adopt in Salman.
John D. Cline, Law Office of John D. Cline, San Francisco, CA; Jeffrey T. Green, NACDL, Washington, DC