Judges to decide scope of central obstruction charge in Jan. 6 Trump case


The Supreme Court on Wednesday agreed to decide a central issue in the federal election interference case against former President Donald J. Trump and hundreds of prosecutions stemming from the assault on the Capitol on January 6, 2021. Can the government charge the defendants? in those cases under a federal law that criminalizes corrupt obstruction of an official congressional proceeding?

The decision to hear the case will complicate and perhaps delay the start of Trump's trial, which is now scheduled to be held in Washington in March. The Supreme Court's final ruling, which may not come until June, is likely to address the viability of two of the main charges against Trump. It could severely limit special counsel Jack Smith's efforts to hold the former president accountable for violence by his supporters at the Capitol.

The court's eventual decision could also invalidate convictions already handed down against dozens of Trump supporters who participated in the attack. That would be a blow to the government's prosecutions of the Jan. 6 riot cases.

The case the court agreed to hear involves Joseph Fischer, who was charged with seven counts for his role in the attack on the Capitol. Prosecutors say he assaulted police while Congress was meeting to certify the 2020 election results. Like hundreds of other rioters whose actions disrupted the certification procedure at the Capitol, Fischer was charged with obstruction, known as formally as 18 USC 1512.

Mr. Fischer requested that part of the indictment brought under the obstruction law, which was passed as part of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002, a statute primarily aimed at white-collar crimes, be dismissed. Prosecutors have routinely used the obstruction charge, rather than more politically contentious charges like insurrection or seditious conspiracy, to describe how members of the pro-Trump mob disrupted the peaceful transfer of presidential power.

Judge Carl J. Nichols of the Federal District Court in Washington granted Mr. Fischer's motion to dismiss, saying that the law required defendants to take “some action with respect to a document, record or other object,” something which he said was missing from Mr. Fischer's conduct at the Capitol.

A divided three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit reversed Judge Nichols' decision, ruling that the law “applies to all forms of corrupt obstruction of an official proceeding.” Three Jan. 6 defendants, including Mr. Fischer, ultimately asked the Supreme Court to decide whether the law had been properly applied to the attack on the Capitol.

The obstruction charge was never easy to fit into the cases stemming from the assault on the Capitol. When passed in the early 2000s, the law was intended to curb corporate misconduct by prohibiting things like destroying documents or tampering with witnesses or evidence.

Defense attorneys representing the Jan. 6 rioters argued that federal prosecutors improperly expanded their reach to cover the violence that erupted at the Capitol and interfered with the procedure in which lawmakers had met to certify the election results. .

The lawyers also took issue with the use of the charge against people who stormed the Capitol, saying many were not acting “corruptly,” as the law requires, because they believed they were protesting a stolen election.

“The statute has been used to overly criminalize the January 6 cases,” said Norm Pattis, an attorney for Jake Lang, one of three defendants who appealed to the Supreme Court. “Congress never intended to do that.”

Pattis said the Supreme Court review was “significant” in hundreds of criminal cases stemming from the Capitol riot and was also “yet another reason why the 2024 case against Donald Trump should be delayed.”

Two of the four counts in the federal election interference charge against Trump are based on the obstruction charge. He has been charged with personally obstructing the certification procedure at the Capitol on Jan. 6 and faces a separate charge of conspiring with others to obstruct the procedure.

The Supreme Court review, while it could damage the impeachment, would not affect the other two charges against Trump. One accuses him of plotting to defraud the United States using relentless lies that the election had been stolen from him in an effort to reverse his defeat. The other accuses him of conspiring to deprive millions of Americans of the right to have their votes counted.

Still, if the Supreme Court rules that the obstruction law does not apply to the mob attack on the Capitol, it could cripple Smith's plans to attribute the violence to Trump.

Recent court documents in the election case have strongly suggested that prosecutors planned to use the obstruction charge as a way to show jurors graphic videos of the attack on the Capitol and perhaps even present testimony from rioters who claimed they broke into the building on instructions from Trump. .

The possibility that the Supreme Court could review (and someday overturn) the obstruction count has been hanging over Trump's election case for months. But the court's decision to act Wednesday came at a particularly sensitive time: two days after Smith asked the justices to expedite an appeal of Trump's separate attempts to dismiss the case over broad claims of presidential immunity.

While the Supreme Court has not yet decided whether to consider Trump's immunity arguments, in the span of a week it has become deeply entangled in the election interference proceedings. His rulings on the obstruction charge and on immunity could radically alter the shape, scope and timing of the case, which long appeared like it would be the first of the four indictments Trump faces to go before a jury.

Attorney General Elizabeth B. Prelogar had urged the justices to deny review of the case, saying the law was broad enough to cover Mr. Fischer's actions even if no documents or other objects were affected.

“A defendant obstructs an official proceeding by physically blocking its conduct, as happened here when the petitioners and others violently occupied the Capitol for several hours and thereby prevented the joint session of Congress from doing its work,” he wrote.

He added that, in any case, the documents were at issue in the case.

“Preventing members of Congress from validating state certificates constitutes evidence-based obstruction,” he wrote, adding that the review was premature. “At a minimum, the government should be allowed to present its case to a jury and demonstrate that the petitioners obstructed a proceeding by (in part) preventing relevant decision makers from viewing the evidence at the time and place specified for that purpose.”

Regardless of how the Supreme Court ultimately rules, Trump's lawyers are likely to use its decision to revisit the obstruction charge to bolster their arguments that the trial in Washington should be postponed, perhaps until after the race is decided. presidential of 2024.

Since the beginning of the case, Trump has pursued a persistent strategy of delay. If he can postpone the trial until after the election and win the race, he would be in a position to simply order the charges against him to be dropped.

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