Supreme Court rules in favor of Jan. 6 Capitol riot participant who challenged obstruction conviction

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Supreme Court rules in favor of Jan. 6 Capitol riot participant who challenged obstruction conviction

The Supreme Court on Friday ruled in favor of a participant in the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol riot who challenged his conviction for a federal “obstruction” crime.

In a 6-3 decision, the high court held to a narrower interpretation of a federal statute that imposes criminal liability on anyone who corruptly “alters, destroys, mutilates, or conceals a record, document, or other object, or attempts to do so, with the intent to impair the object’s integrity or availability for use in an official proceeding.” 

The ruling reverses a lower court decision, which the high court said swept too broadly into areas like peaceful but disruptive conduct, and returns the case to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, who will have the opportunity to reassess the case with Friday’s ruling in mind. 

The case stems from a lawsuit filed by Joseph Fischer — one of more than 300 people charged by the Justice Department with “obstruction of an official proceeding” in the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the Capitol. His lawyers argued that the federal statute should not apply, and that it had only ever been applied to evidence-tampering cases. 

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Rioters loyal to President Donald Trump rally at the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Jan. 6, 2021. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana, File)

The Justice Department argued that Fischer’s actions were a “deliberate attempt” to stop a joint session of Congress directly from certifying the 2020 election, thus qualifying their use of the statute that criminalizes behavior that “otherwise obstructs, influences, or impedes any official proceeding, or attempts to do” and carries a penalty of up to 20 years in prison.

However, Chief Justice John Roberts said the government stretched the law too far.  

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“Although the Government’s all-encompassing interpretation may be literally permissible, it defies the most plausible understanding” of why certain provisions of the statute were put together, “and it renders an unnerving amount of statutory text mere surplusage,” Roberts wrote in the opinion of the court. 

To prove a defendant is guilty of the “obstruction” crime, the government “must establish that the defendant impaired the availability or integrity for use in an official proceeding of records, documents, objects, or as we earlier explained, other things used in the proceeding, or attempted to do so,” Roberts wrote. 

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Woman walks past Supreme Court building

The U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., on Friday, June 28, 2024. (Valerie Plesch/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

In a concurring opinion, Associate Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson emphasized that despite “the shocking circumstances involved in this case… this Court’s task is to determine what conduct is proscribed by the criminal statute that has been invoked as the basis for the obstruction charge at issue here.” 

“Joseph Fischer was charged with violating §1512(c)(2) by corruptly obstructing ‘a proceeding before Congress, specifically, Congress’s certification of the Electoral College vote.’… That official proceeding plainly used certain records, documents, or objects — including, among others, those relating to the electoral votes themselves… And it might well be that Fischer’s conduct, as alleged here, involved the impairment (or the attempted impairment) of the availability or integrity of things used during the January 6 proceeding ‘in ways other than those specified in (c)(1).’ 

“If so, then Fischer’s prosecution under §1512(c)(2) can, and should, proceed. That issue remains available for the lower courts to determine on remand,” she wrote. 

Associate Justices Amy Coney Barrett, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan dissented.

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U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Amy Coney Barrett

U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Amy Coney Barrett dissented, arguing that Congress, not the court, has given the Executive Branch wide discretion to determine the limits of a federal obstruction statute.  (AP)

“There is no getting around it: Section 1512(c)(2) is an expansive statute. Yet Congress, not this Court, weighs ‘pros and cons of whether a statute should sweep broadly or narrowly,'” Barrett wrote. “Once Congress has set the outer bounds of liability, the Executive Branch has the discretion to select particular cases to prosecute within those boundaries. By atextually narrowing §1512(c)(2), the Court has failed to respect the prerogatives of the political branches.”

Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar took a slew of tough questions from the justices during oral arguments in April. 

At one point, Justice Neil Gorsuch questioned whether, under the government’s argument, heckling at the State of the Union address or the recent incident of Rep. Jaamal Bowman, D-N.Y., pulling a fire alarm and diverting a House vote would constitute “obstruction.”

“There are multiple elements of the [statute] that I think might not be satisfied by those hypotheticals,” Prelogar replied, adding that obstruction requires “meaningful interference” and “corrupt intent.”

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Chief Justice John Roberts pressed Prelogar about an opinion issued in 2019 by the DOJ’s Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) — an office that serves as a legal adviser to the department and other executive agencies — which said the obstruction statute should be viewed narrowly and contradicts the DOJ’s position in the case.

Prelogar said that opinion was never “formally” adopted, but she could not say what the DOJ’s process is for formerly accepting an OLC paper. 

Since the Supreme Court concluded the lower courts interpreted the instruction statute too broadly, the case now goes back to the D.C. federal appeals court to decide whether under the new narrower legal standard, the obstruction component of the case against Fischer — and presumably other Jan. 6 defendants — can go forward.

The Justice Department must now decide whether to go ahead and drop the obstruction charge for defendants facing other Jan. 6-related criminal counts, or wait until the courts have fully resolved the question. For those defendants only charged with obstruction under this statute, DOJ must decide whether to now drop their prosecutions entirely.

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