Supreme Court rules for Jan. 6 rioter challenging obstruction charge

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Friday ruled in favor of a former police officer who is seeking to throw out an obstruction charge for joining the Capitol riot on Jan. 6, 2021.

The justices in a 6-3 vote on nonideological lines handed a win to defendant Joseph Fischer, who is among hundreds of Jan. 6 defendants — including former President Donald Trump — who have been charged with obstructing an official proceeding over the effort to prevent Congress’ certification of President Joe Biden’s election victory.

The court concluded that the law, enacted in 2002 as part of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act after the Enron accounting scandal, was only intended to apply to more limited circumstances involving forms of evidence tampering, not the much broader array of situations that prosecutors had claimed it covered.

The provision targets anyone who “obstructs, influences, or impedes any official proceeding, or attempts to do so,” but the court determined that its scope is limited by a preceding sentence in the statute referring to altering or destroying records.

Joseph Fischer, second left, inside the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. (U.S. District Court)Joseph Fischer, second left, inside the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. (U.S. District Court)

Joseph Fischer, second left, inside the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. (U.S. District Court)

The court sent the case back to lower courts for further proceedings on whether the Justice Department could still prosecute Fischer under the new interpretation of the law.

Attorney General Merrick Garland said in a statement that he was disappointed by the decision because of the impact it would have on the Justice Department’s Jan. 6 cases, although he stressed it would not affect the bulk of them.

The ruling “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 added.

But the decision was celebrated by Trump, who said the Supreme Court “did the right thing” in Fischer’s case.

“They’ve been waiting for this decision for a long time. They’ve been waiting for a long time, and that was a great answer. That was a great thing for people who have been so horribly treated,” Trump told supporters Friday at a rally in Chesapeake, Virginia.

On Jan. 6, 2021, prosecutors said, Fischer joined the crowd breaching the Capitol from the east side. “Charge!” he yelled again and again before he pushed forward toward a police line while yelling, “Motherf—–s!” the government says.

He and other rioters then fell to the ground. After other rioters lifted him up, video disclosed as evidence in other Jan. 6 trials shows, he tried to appeal to officers protecting the Capitol, telling them that he was an officer, too.

Fischer previously served as a police officer in North Cornwall Township, Pennsylvania. (Another man named Joseph Fisher, who was also a police officer, was recently sentenced to 20 months in prison for his own role on Jan. 6.)

Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the majority opinion that the government’s view of the law’s reach “defies the most plausible understanding” of the statute in question, 18 U.S. Code 1512. The provision carries a prison sentence of up to 20 years.

The Justice Department’s interpretation would “criminalize a broad swath of prosaic conduct, exposing activists and lobbyists alike to decades in prison,” he added.

To prove a violation, prosecutors now have to show that the defendant “impaired the availability or integrity for use in an official proceeding of records, documents, objects, or … other things used in the proceeding,” Roberts wrote.

He was joined by four other conservatives and one liberal — Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson — in the majority. The other two liberal justices were joined by conservative Amy Coney Barrett in dissent.

Jackson wrote a separate opinion saying that Fischer’s conduct could still be covered by the narrower interpretation of the law.

The joint session of Congress on Jan. 6 to certify the election results “plainly used certain records, documents, or objects — including among others, those relating to the electoral votes themselves,” she added.

Barrett wrote that as no one disputes that the joint session was an official proceeding, the question of whether Fischer can be prosecuted “seems open and shut.”

The majority, she added, “simply cannot believe that Congress meant what it said” when writing a broad statute intended to cover a lot of different conduct. She wrote that the court “has failed to respect the prerogatives of the political branches” in ruling against prosecutors.

The ruling may not affect Trump’s case. Prosecutors said that even if Fischer wins, Trump’s conduct would still be covered by a narrower interpretation of the statute.

Fischer faces seven criminal charges, only one of which was the focus of the Supreme Court case. Even if the obstruction charge is ultimately dismissed, the other charges, including assaulting a police officer and entering a restricted building, will remain in place.

The court, which has a 6-3 conservative majority, has in the past been skeptical of prosecutors when they assert broad applications of criminal provisions.

In his election interference case, Trump faces four charges, including one count of obstructing an official proceeding and another of conspiracy to do so.

In a separate case, the Supreme Court is considering Trump’s claim of presidential immunity in the election interference case, which will also affect whether all the charges remain in place ahead of a trial.

While there are 247 cases of the more than 1,400 Jan. 6 cases that may be affected by the Fischer ruling, there are just 52 cases in which it is the only felony offense, and just 27 of those defendants are still serving a sentence. Most recently, Jan. 6 defendant Benjamin Martin was convicted on Wednesday of obstruction of an official proceeding, but he was also convicted of felony civil disorder and misdemeanor offenses.

Recently, judges have been factoring the pending Fischer decision into their sentencing decisions. If a defendant was convicted of another felony, like assaulting an officer, they have stated on the record that they would have reached the same decision regardless of the Supreme Court’s decision in the Fischer case.

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