UNITED STATES NEWS

Supreme Court makes it harder to charge Capitol riot defendants with obstruction, charge Trump faces

Jun 28, 2024, 5:00 PM

FILE - Rioters loyal to President Donald Trump rally at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Jan. 6, 202...

FILE - Rioters loyal to President Donald Trump rally at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Jan. 6, 2021. Retired NASCAR driver Tighe Scott, his adult son and two other Pennsylvania men are facing felony charges stemming from confrontations with police during the Jan. 6, 2021, siege on the U.S. Capitol. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana, File)

(AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana, File)

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Supreme Court on Friday limited a federal obstruction law that has been used to charge hundreds of Capitol riot defendants as well as former President Donald Trump.

The justices ruled 6-3 that the charge of obstructing an official proceeding, enacted in 2002 in response to the financial scandal that brought down Enron Corp., must include proof that defendants tried to tamper with or destroy documents. Only some of the people who violently attacked the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, fall into that category.

The overwhelming majority of the approximately 1,000 people who have been convicted of or pleaded guilty to Capitol riot-related federal crimes were not charged with obstruction and will not be affected by the outcome.

Still, the decision is likely to be used as fodder for claims by Trump and his Republican allies that the Justice Department has treated the Capitol riot defendants unfairly.

It’s unclear how the court’s decision will affect the case against Trump in Washington, which includes charges other than obstruction. Special counsel Jack Smith has said the charges faced by the former president would not be affected.

Trump’s case is on hold while the Supreme Court considers a separate case in which Trump is claiming immunity from prosecution. A decision is expected on Monday.

Under the ruling issued Friday, dozens of defendants could seek new sentences, ask to withdraw guilty pleas, or have charges dropped. Most defendants convicted of obstruction were also convicted of another felony so their sentence may not be significantly impacted – if at all.

The high court returned the case of former Pennsylvania police officer Joseph Fischer to a lower court to determine if Fischer could be charged with obstruction. Fischer has been indicted for his role in disrupting Congress’ certification of Democrat Joe Biden’s 2020 presidential election victory over Trump.

Fischer is among about 350 people who have been charged with obstruction. Some pleaded guilty to — or were convicted of — lesser charges.

Republicans, who have cast the Jan. 6 defendants as victims of political persecution, are certain to seize on the ruling to argue the rioters have been unfairly prosecuted by the Justice Department. Trump has embraced Jan. 6 defendants on the campaign trial, and floated pardons for the rioters if he wins in November.

Trump, speaking at a rally in Chesapeake, Virginia, described the decision as a “great thing.”

“Free the J6 hostages now,” he said. “They should free them now for what they’ve gone through. 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 is a great thing for people that have been so horribly treated. ”

It’s also likely to slow down cases in a court already clogged with Jan. 6 defendants as judges are forced to grapple with how to apply the ruling.

“It’s going to be a big mess,” said Randall Eliason, a professor at George Washington University Law School and former federal prosecutor in Washington.

Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the court’s opinion, joined by conservative Justices Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Clarence Thomas, and by liberal Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, a former federal public defender who also wrote a separate opinion.

Reading the obstruction statute broadly “would also criminalize a broad swath of prosaic conduct, exposing activists and lobbyists to decades in prison,” Roberts wrote.

Justice Amy Coney Barrett dissented, along with Justices Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor.

Barrett, one of three justices appointed by Trump, wrote that the law clearly encompasses the events of Jan. 6. “The riot forced Congress to suspend the proceeding, delaying it for several hours,” she wrote.

She said her colleagues in the majority did “textual backflips to find some way — any way — to narrow the reach” of the obstruction law.

Roberts, Jackson and Barrett made strikingly different word choices in their opinions. While Roberts described the attack as a “breach of the Capitol,” Barrett described the events as a riot and the participants as rioters. Jackson wrote that “an angry mob stormed the United States Capitol.”

Attorney General Merrick Garland said he was disappointed with the decision, which he said “limits an important federal statute.” Still, Garland said the cases against the “vast majority” of people charged in the attack won’t be affected.

“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,” he said. “We will continue to use all available tools to hold accountable those criminally responsible for the January 6 attack on our democracy.”

Roughly 170 Capitol insurrection defendants have been convicted of obstructing or conspiring to obstruct the Jan. 6 joint session of Congress, including the leaders of two far-right extremist groups, the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers. A number of defendants have had their sentencings delayed until after the justices rule on the matter.

Some rioters have even won early release from prison while the appeal was pending over concerns that they might end up serving longer than they should have if the Supreme Court ruled against the Justice Department. They include Kevin Seefried, a Delaware man who threatened a Black police officer with a pole attached to a Confederate battle flag as he stormed the Capitol. Seefried was sentenced last year to three years behind bars, but a judge recently ordered that he be released one year into his prison term while awaiting the Supreme Court’s ruling.

Seventeen of the 18 trial judges who have weighed in have allowed the charge to stand. Among them, U.S. District Judge Dabney Friedrich, a Trump appointee, wrote that “statutes often reach beyond the principal evil that animated them.”

But U.S. District Judge Carl Nichols, another Trump appointee, dismissed the charge against Fischer and two other defendants, writing that prosecutors went too far. A divided panel of the federal appeals court in Washington reinstated the charge before the Supreme Court agreed to take up the case.

Alito and Thomas rejected calls that they step aside from the Jan. 6 case because of questions raised about their impartiality.

The U.S. attorney’s office in Washington, which has handled Jan. 6 prosecutions, said no one who has been convicted of or charged with obstruction will be completely cleared because of the ruling. Every defendant also has other felony or misdemeanor charges, or both, prosecutors said.

For around 50 people who were convicted, obstruction was the only felony count, prosecutors said. Of those, roughly two dozen who still are serving their sentence are most likely to be affected by the ruling.

More than 1,400 people have been charged with Capitol riot-related federal crimes.

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Supreme Court makes it harder to charge Capitol riot defendants with obstruction, charge Trump faces