Supreme Court rules in favor of Jan. 6 defendant, upending hundreds of J6 cases

Supreme Court rules in favor of Jan. 6 defendant, upending hundreds of J6 cases

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled in favor of Joseph Fischer, a participant in the January 6 Capitol riots who challenged his obstruction conviction in a decision that could upend hundreds of other similar cases – and it may even affect the case against former President Donald Trump.

Fischer, a former Pennsylvania police officer, was charged by the Department of Justice with “obstruction of an official proceeding” in connection with his behavior on the infamous day and was convicted. However, his lawyers argued in appeals that the federal statute was not applicable to his case and was instead written with evidence tampering cases in mind.

The DoJ argued that his participation was a “deliberate attempt” to stop Congress from certifying the results of the 2020 election and that his actions fall under the statute criminalizing behavior that “otherwise obstructs, influences, or impedes any official proceeding, or attempts to do,” a charge that comes with up to 20 years behind bars.

The Supreme Court disagreed, upholding a more narrow interpretation of the statute in a 6-3 decision, maintaining that the statute applies to 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.”

Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson joined the conservatives on the Supreme Court – Chief Justice John Roberts, Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh – in overturning the case; conservative justice Amy Coney Barrett joined Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan in dissenting.

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Chief Justice Roberts wrote in the court’s opinion that the government stretched the definition too far and that there must be proof a defendant tried to destroy or tamper with documents, something that most of the J6 defendants did not do.

He noted that a broad reading of the statute “would also criminalize a broad swath of prosaic conduct, exposing activists and lobbyists to decades in prison.”

“Our usual approach in obstruction cases has been to “resist reading” particular sub-provisions “to create a coverall statute.” Yates, 574 U. S., at 549 (plurality opinion). Nothing in the text or statutory history gives the Court a reason to depart from that practice today. And 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,” he added.

The case will now be sent back to the D.C. federal appeals court to decide if the obstruction component with the narrower legal standard still applies to Fischer.

Hundreds of other J6 cases could also be affected

This will also have an effect on the hundreds of other defendants facing similar charges, making it more difficult for them to be charged with obstruction. The DoJ could decide to drop obstruction charges for other defendants who are also facing other criminal counts related to their activities on that day or wait until the question is fully resolved by the courts. In cases where obstruction under this statute is the sole charge against a defendant, their prosecution could even be dropped altogether.

So far, around 170 J6 defendants have been convicted of obstruction or conspiring to obstruct the joint session of Congress; others have had their sentencings delayed pending the Supreme Court ruling on this question.

Trump is also facing charges of obstructing an official proceeding in connection with J6; two of the four felony counts against him involve this type of obstruction. However, some legal experts have said that prosecutors may still be able to pursue the obstruction charges because his case is different from those of the other defendants.

Sources for this article include:

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