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Accounting for an Injustice

A Supreme Court decision on Tuesday overturned the 2002 criminal conviction of former Enron accounting firm Arthur Andersen. The decision comes too late for 28,000 of the firm's largely innocent workers who lost their jobs simply because public reaction to the original indictment sank the company.

But it's not too late to make sure this ruling prevents prosecutors or judges from once again misusing the law to appease a popular desire to nail anyone in the vicinity of a corporate scandal like Enron's. Arthur Andersen, after all, was not tried on aiding Enron's "off balance sheet" activities, but on charges of a coverup.

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The high court found a lower court judge failed to instruct the jury that it had to decide if Anderson had "the requisite consciousness of wrongdoing" in shredding Enron-related documents before it was subpoenaed. Withholding documents is not "necessarily corrupt" unless such intent can be proven, the justices stated. It wasn't in this case.

This ruling's basic reasoning - that a failure to assist government in an investigation isn't a crime by itself - should force Congress to reconsider its onerous requirements for record-keeping in the post-Enron accounting reform law known as Sarbanes-Oxley.

Restraint is always needed in fighting crime. People need "fair warning," as the court stated, that their conduct is illegal. Otherwise lives can be overturned in a rush to judgment.