Supreme Court Upends Hundreds of Capitol Riot Cases


The Supreme Court has upended hundreds of prosecutions related to the Capitol riot—including one of former President Donald Trump’s criminal cases—by ruling Friday that the feds need to narrow their usage of the charge of obstructing an official proceeding.

In a 6-3 ruling, the justices significantly weakened the statute under which more than 330 rioters had been charged. Trump has also been charged with obstruction in his criminal case in Washington, D.C., related to his efforts to overturn his 2020 election loss.

However, while it’s a win for rioters, it’s unclear how exactly the ruling will affect their prosecutions as the justices’ reading of the statute still gives prosecutors some wiggle room. The vast majority of rioters were also hit with other charges, like assaulting police officers, and most have been convicted and served their time.

As for Trump’s case, University of Texas School of Law professor Steven Vladeck predicted that Trump’s charges would still meet the court’s narrower interpretation of the statute. “But for other January 6 defendants, it opens the door to possible re-sentencings or re-trials,” he wrote on X.

In the case, Fischer v. US, a former cop who was indicted for participating in the riot argued that prosecutors had bastardized the obstruction charge, an offense that was introduced after the Enron financial scandal in 2002 and was intended to relate to the destruction of records in relation to an investigation.

Lawyers for Joseph Fischer, who was suspended by the North Cornwall Township Police Department after he was indicted, argued that he was “not part of the mob” that stormed the Capitol as lawmakers were inside preparing to certify Electoral College votes, and that the obstruction charge had “never been used to prosecute anything other than evidence tampering.”

According to videos he posted online, Fischer was instead part of a group that rushed a line of cops outside the Capitol while shouting “hold the line” and “motherfuckers.” (In a private Facebook message days later, he joked that he may need a new job but that he had “no regrets and give zero shits.”)

Lawyers for the government argued that, although Fischer only entered the building once lawmakers were in recess, he had said beforehand that he was prepared to use violence to intimidate them. “He said they can’t vote if they can’t breathe,” Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar said.

On Friday, the court reversed a ruling by the D.C. Circuit court, which had initially adopted a broader reading of the law. The court said prosecutors must have evidence that a defendant at least tried to impair the availability of “records, documents, objects” or other “things” used in an official proceeding.

Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson sided with the conservative justices while Justices Amy Coney Barrett, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan dissented.

Former U.S. attorney Barbara McQuade told MSNBC that the ruling would have a “devastating impact” across the country because the statute is used widely in a variety of prosecutions.

But, as Jackson noted in her concurring opinion, rioters may still be liable under the statute if they attempt to impair the availability of, say, electoral vote certificates.

The case now goes back to the D.C. Circuit to asses whether Fischer’s indictment can still stand given the more narrow interpretation. McQuade said the ruling opens the door for Trump to bog down his case in more pre-trial motions and rulings.

In a hearing in April, the Supreme Court’s conservative-leaning justices appeared to agree with Fischer’s argument that the Department of Justice’s use of the charge was too broad, theorizing that it could apply to someone who protests inside a courtroom, heckles the president at an official event, or pulls a fire alarm in the Capitol building to delay a congressional vote.

This post was originally published on Daily Beast

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