United States v. Robertson - Oral Argument - February 27, 1995

United States v. Robertson

Media for United States v. Robertson

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - May 01, 1995 in United States v. Robertson

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - February 27, 1995 in United States v. Robertson

William H. Rehnquist:

We'll hear argument next in Number 94-251, the United States v. Juan Paul Robertson.

Mr. Estrada.

Miguel A. Estrada:

Thank you, Mr. Chief Justice, and may it please the Court:

The respondent was a California lawyer who became involved in drug dealing and other crimes.

With money obtained from his crimes, he invested in a venture to mine gold in Alaska.

He was eventually convicted of narcotics offenses and of violating the Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, known as RICO.

RICO makes it a crime for any person to use income derived from a pattern of racketeering activity to acquire an interest in any enterprise

"which is engaged in, or the activities of which affect interstate or foreign commerce. "

The Ninth Circuit affirmed the narcotics conviction, but it reversed the RICO conviction for lack of proof that the activities of the gold mining venture affected interstate commerce.

The court held that a minimal effect on interstate commerce would be sufficient to satisfy RICO, but that an incidental effect on that commerce would not.

The court then found that the Government's evidence, including the fact that the gold mining venture had hired employees outside of Alaska and purchased equipment outside of Alaska, showed, at most, an incidental effect on interstate commerce.

The Ninth Circuit emphasized that Alaska's geographical isolation means that most supplies and equipment must get there via interstate commerce, and it believed that Alaska's dependence on interstate commerce should not mean that local businesses in Alaska are covered by RICO.

We brought the case here because the Ninth Circuit decision conflicts with the view of every other court of appeals that has considered what sort of a jurisdictional proof satisfies the requirements of RICO.

William H. Rehnquist:

I think it's we rather than you who brought the case here.

Miguel A. Estrada:

Well, I stand corrected, Mr. Chief Justice.

Our argument in the case, now that it is here, Mr. Chief Justice, starts with the language of RICO, and that language reaches all enterprises the activities of which affect interstate or foreign commerce.

This Court's cases made clear that the phrase, affect commerce, is a term of art that Congress uses to exercise all commerce power it has under the Constitution, and that Congress intended to exercise all of its constitutional power in RICO is confirmed not only by its use of that term of art, but also by the fact that one of its principal goals in enacting RICO, which was to safeguard small businesses from infiltration by organized crime, could likely not be achieved under any narrower view of the jurisdictional requirement.

Under RICO, then, in our view, the question is whether the activities of the enterprise, here the gold mining venture, affect commerce when measured by the full constitutional authority of Congress and, under that standard, the evidence in this case was sufficient to meet the Government's burden.

The Ninth Circuit conceded that respondent and his employees traveled between Alaska and the Lower 48 States in connection with the work in the mine, that the mine obtained supplies and equipment from the Lower 48 States, and the respondent mortgaged a home he owned in Arizona to finance the second mining season in 1986.

In addition, the evidence showed that the mine sold a substantial amount of gold in Alaska worth at least $200,000, that the purchasers of the gold were part of a broader market in precious metals that reached beyond Alaska, and that therefore the mine's output was part of a class of activities that in the aggregate substantially affects interstate commerce.

In addition, the evidence showed that respondent and his associates used the instrumentalities of interstate commerce repeatedly, the mail and the telephones, as part of the business of the mine.

In our view, all of that evidence was clearly sufficient to satisfy the Government's burden under--

Sandra Day O'Connor:

Mr. Estrada, in your view, is there any business enterprise in America that wouldn't be covered by RICO?

What are the limits?

Miguel A. Estrada:

--As a factual matter, Justice O'Connor, I cannot think of any business in the country that could not be covered by RICO, given that what is at issue is the full constitutional authority of Congress.

I understand that the Commerce principle is a limited one, and we do agree with that.

However, the facts on which it operates are not limited, and in our economy on this day, I cannot think of anything that is likely to actually happen in the real world that would not be covered by this Court's cases construing the extent of Congress' power under the Commerce Clause.

Sandra Day O'Connor:

How do you distinguish the situation here from the situation which was argued recently here in the Lopez case?

Miguel A. Estrada:

Well, this case is significantly different from Lopez.

As I understand the claim of the respondent in Lopez and the view that was followed by the Fifth Circuit in that case, Congress is required to make findings and to set forth some sort of an explanation as to why it views the activities that it is trying to reach as affecting commerce.