Supreme Court says DOJ went too far with charges against Jan. 6 rioters

The high court's ruling could affect the cases of hundreds of other insurrectionists who have faced the same obstruction charge.
Posted at 9:54 AM, Jun 28, 2024

The Supreme Court ruled in a 6-3 decision that federal prosecutors went too far in bringing obstruction charges against participants of the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection.

The case was a rare one in which the three liberal justices were not voting in unison. Instead, Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson joined Chief John Roberts, who authored the decision. Justice Amy Coney Barrett joined the Democratic appointees Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor in the minority.

The decision came after the justices heard arguments from a former Pennsylvania police officer, Joseph Fischer, who was indicted for his role in disrupting Congress’ certification of President Joe Biden’s 2020 election victory.

Hundreds of other insurrectionists have faced the same charge for impeding an official proceeding, including former President Donald Trump, who was defeated in the 2020 election. This high court ruling could affect those decisions. The Supreme Court sent the case back to a lower court to decide whether the charges should still stand.

The Associated Press said about 170 of those Jan. 6 defendants charged with obstruction have been convicted, most of whom entered the Senate chamber or offices of Congress members during the riot. Many had their sentences delayed until the high court ruling.

Trump faces two obstruction charges in a separate case — the same case the Supreme Court will soon decide on regarding the former president’s claims of immunity.

According to The Associated Press, special counsel Jack Smith, who brought forth the obstruction charges against Trump in a federal court in Washington, D.C., has argued that the charges against Trump are valid regardless of the Supreme Court’s ruling.

The court noted that the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 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.”

Roberts ruled that prosecutors must show that the "defendant impaired the availability or integrity for use in an official proceeding of records, documents, objects, or other things used in an official proceeding, or attempted to do so." Essentially, he said the Department of Justice used too broad of an interpretation of the law in bringing charges against Fischer.

Roberts' assertion was one Attorney General Merrick Garland said he disagreed with.

“January 6 was an unprecedented attack on the cornerstone of our system of government — the peaceful transfer of power from one administration to the next. I am disappointed by today’s decision, which limits an important federal statute that the Department has sought to use to ensure that those most responsible for that attack face appropriate consequences," he said.

Roberts added that there was not a single case against the alleged Jan. 6 rioters in which only obstruction charges were filed.

"For the cases affected by today’s decision, the Department will take appropriate steps to comply with the Court’s ruling," Garland added. "We will continue to use all available tools to hold accountable those criminally responsible for the January 6 attack on our democracy.”

Why were insurrectionists charged with obstruction?

The law in question was enacted following the Enron scandal in 2001, one of the largest cases of accounting and corporate fraud in U.S. history. The precedent case involved an energy company based in Texas, resulting in a wave of new regulations and legislation — the most relevant being the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002, which imposed harsh penalties for destroying, altering or fabricating records or documents with the intent to impede, obstruct or influence a federal investigation or “official proceedings.”

The amendments closed a loophole in the law, but they also broadened its definition.

Federal prosecutors have used the law as a “catchall” to charge the rioters who stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, claiming the insurrectionists disrupted the peaceful transition of power and therefore the government’s work on an “official proceeding.”

Law analysts have said prosecutors turned to obstruction charges for the rioters instead of insurrection or seditious conspiracy charges because those are more challenging to prove and have rarely been tested in court.

Conviction of the obstruction charge could allow sentences of up to 20 years in prison.

What was the case heard by the Supreme Court?

Fischer v. United States was brought to the Supreme Court by a former police officer with Pennsylvania’s North Cornwall Township who faces multiple criminal charges for his alleged involvement in the 2021 insurrection, including assaulting officers of the Capitol Police and Metropolitan Police departments.

The charge in question is for obstruction, which prosecutors have argued Fischer did when he participated in the attack on the Capitol.

Prosecutors said before Jan. 6, 2021, Fischer sent text messages in which he indicated to acquaintances that members of Congress “[c]an’t vote if they can’t breathe … lol” and that he might need his police chief “to post my bail … It might get violent.” They also claim Fischer urged fellow rioters to “charge” and “hold the line” during the insurrection.

Fischer and his lawyers claim he arrived at the Capitol after the joint meeting of Congress to count the certified votes in the 2020 presidential election had already gone into recess, and that he was only inside the building for a few minutes after being pushed into the police line by the mob.

The day after the insurrection, Fischer wrote on his social media that he had been “pepper balled and [pepper] sprayed … but entry into the Capital [sic] was needed to send a message that we the people hold the real power,” according to SCOTUS blog.

While his other charges will move forward, Fischer and his lawyers argued the charge of obstruction was only meant for evidence tampering involving a congressional inquiry or investigation and that, prior to cases involving insurrectionists, there were no previous convictions of the crime that did not involve the integrity of evidence.

A federal district judge dismissed the obstruction charge against Fischer, which the government then appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. It was reversed, with Judge Florence Pan writing in the lead opinion that the law “applies to all forms of corrupt obstruction of an official proceeding.”

The Supreme Court later agreed to take up the case.

What did Supreme Court justices have to say about it?

During oral arguments in April, the Supreme Court seemed divided on the case.

The conservative majority of the high court questioned whether the U.S. Justice Department had exceeded the scope of the statute for obstruction, some stating the law was so broad it could even be used against peaceful protests.

Kagan said the law regarding obstruction can be interpreted in two ways and the drafters of the amendments could have made it clear it only applies to evidence tampering but they did not.

Justice Neil Gorsuch questioned whether the broadness of the law could also apply to a sit-in at a trial, someone who pulled a fire alarm before a congressional vote or a heckler in the Supreme Court’s gallery.

Barrett and Jackson expressed interest in more of a middle-ground outcome in which the interpretation could be narrowed enough to make it harder, but not impossible, for prosecutors to use the obstruction charge in cases like Fischer’s.