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Supreme Court Narrows Use of Obstruction Charges in Ruling on Jan. 6 Case

'The Government’s theory would ... criminalize a broad swath of prosaic conduct, exposing activists and lobbyists to decades in prison'

Supreme Court Narrows Use of Obstruction Charges in Ruling on Jan. 6 Case

The fates of hundreds of defendants charged with obstruction of an official proceeding on Jan. 6 could be permanently changed as a result of a new ruling from the United States Supreme Court. 

In a 6-3 ruling, the nation’s highest court ruled the Department of Justice’s application of the charge was too broad. The court argued the federal government must prove a defendant “impaired the availability or integrity” of documents or other records related to an official proceeding.

“The Government’s theory would ... criminalize a broad swath of prosaic conduct, exposing activists and lobbyists to decades in prison,” the court noted in its decision. “The Government’s interpretation would give prosecutors broad discretion to seek a 20-year maximum sentence for acts Congress saw fit to punish with far shorter sentences.”

The case, Fischer v. United States, involved a former Pennsylvania police officer who was charged with obstructing an official proceeding for entering the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. Joseph Fischer was accused of getting into an altercation with police inside the capitol as well as obstructing an official proceeding. The court only reviewed the obstruction charge. 

Chief Justice John Roberts authored the majority opinion, which was supported by four other conservative justices as well as Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson.

Roberts wrote that a “narrower interpretation” is “superior” to a board interpretation of the phrase “otherwise obstructs, influences, or impedes any official proceeding.”

“To prove a violation of Section 1512(c)(2), 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,” wrote Roberts. “The judgment of the D. C. Circuit is therefore vacated, and the case is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.”

The case will now be sent back to the lower court for review. 

“Our commitment to equal justice and the rule of law requires the courts to faithfully apply criminal laws as written, even in periods of national crisis,” wrote Jackson in her concurring opinion.

“Notwithstanding the shocking circumstances involved in this case or the Government’s determination that they warrant prosecution, today, 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,” she added. “There is no indication whatsoever that Congress intended to create a sweeping, all-purpose obstruction statute.” 

Justice Amy Coney Barrett joined Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, the liberal members of the court, in dissenting.

“Joseph Fischer allegedly participated in a riot at the Capitol that forced the delay of Congress’s joint session on January 6th,” wrote Barrett. “Blocking an official proceeding from moving forward surely qualifies as obstructing or impeding the proceeding by means other than document destruction.”

More than 300 hundred people, including President Donald Trump, were charged with obstructing an official proceeding in the wake of the 2021 Capitol riot. The charge, a provision of the 2001 Sarbanes-Oxley Act, is typically brought in white-collar or financial crime cases, per The Independent.

The court’s decision could impact the ongoing prosecution of approximately 250 people, reports CBS News.

Attorney General Merrick Garland said he was “disappointed” in the Supreme Court’s decision to limit “an important federal statute that the Department has sought to use to ensure that those most responsible for that attack face appropriate consequences.”

The vast majority of the more than 1,400 defendants charged for their illegal actions on January 6 will not be affected by this decision,” Garland said in a press release on June 28. “There are no cases in which the Department charged a January 6 defendant only with the offense at issue in Fischer.”

Attorney Nicholas Smith, who argued on behalf of Fischer before the D.C. appellate court, praised the ruling.

We are all grateful to the Supreme Court for standing up for the depoliticized common sense that a person obstructs justice only if he impairs evidence,” he said in a statement shared on X by reporter Julie Kelly.

Others celebrated the ruling as evidence of the effectiveness of the judicial branch.

“Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson ruled in favor of Jan. 6 defendants today, agreeing with the view that hundreds were improperly charged with obstruction,” said Billy Binion, an associate editor for Reason Magazine, on X. “I am here with yet another reminder that this Supreme Court is not nearly as ideologically polarized as you've heard.”

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