US supreme court skeptical of using obstruction law to charge Capitol riot defendants

The US supreme court expressed concern on Tuesday with prosecutors using an obstruction statute to charge hundreds of January 6 Capitol riot defendants, with the justices leaning towards a position that could jeopardize those prosecutions and the criminal case against Donald Trump.

The Trump case was not mentioned at the argument. But a decision curtailing the use of the obstruction statute in connection with the Capitol attack could eliminate two of the four charges against the former president.

The case, which on its face involves a January 6 riot defendant named Joseph Fischer, became of sudden importance last year after Trump was also charged with obstruction of an official proceeding over his efforts to stop Congress from certifying the results of the 2020 presidential election.

At issue is whether the obstruction statute passed under the Sarbanes-Oxley Act in 2002 in the wake of the Enron scandal could be used to prosecute general instances of obstruction, or whether it was intended to be used more narrowly for evidence tampering or document destruction.

If the supreme court decides that section 1512(c) of title 18 of the US criminal code was being used too broadly, it could cripple part of the case against Trump as the special counsel Jack Smith looks to draw a line at trial from the former president’s January 6 speech to the violence.

And if the court moved to strike down the use of the obstruction statute , it could undercut the remaining conspiracy statutes used in the indictment against Trump.

The US solicitor general Elizabeth Prelogar, arguing for the justice department, found herself repeatedly pressed on those points by the justices Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch and Clarence Thomas – and John Roberts, the chief justice.

When Congress passed the obstruction law, it was done in a two-part provision. The first part makes it a crime to corruptly alter, destroy or conceal evidence to frustrate official proceedings. The second part, at issue in Fischer’s case, makes it a crime to “otherwise” obstruct official proceedings.

The argument from Prelogar contended that “otherwise” was designed as a catchall for any obstructive conduct that Congress might not have imagined when the law was being drafted. Prelogar’s point was that the theme of the law was outlawing all obstruction.

Fischer’s lawyer, Jeffrey Green, argued that was too broad: “otherwise” should be defined as engaging in “similar” conduct as expressed in the first part of the statute – to do with obstructing an investigation or evidence tampering – done in a different way.

Alito and Gorsuch appeared deeply skeptical of the justice department’s position. They suggested repeatedly that Prelogar’s reading of the law was overly expansive, peppering her with hypotheticals.

Would delaying an official proceeding count as obstruction? How significant did the delay have to be to count as obstruction? Gorsuch asked. Alito added that the statute mentioned obstruction but also mentioned “impeding” proceedings, which, he said, was less serious than obstruction.

Prelogar, on the defensive, was eventually pressed into replying that peaceful protests would be a technical violation of the law, even if the justice department was unlikely to prosecute minor disturbances, drawing a contrast to the events of January 6.

But that invited Alito to ask how Prelogar would define minor disturbances. Would it be a minor disturbance if people heckled a court hearing, delaying the hearing and causing lawyers to lose their train of thought? Prelogar’s definition would encompass everything and anything in between, Alito suggested.

Thomas also appeared concerned with the enforcement history of the obstruction statute. Prelogar took the opportunity to point out that the justice department had previously prosecuted cases of interfering with a grand jury investigation and interfering with federal court proceedings.

But in rebuttal, Fischer’s lawyer suggested that her examples supported his position, because both were related to the use of evidence in proceedings.

The justice department’s position came under additional fire from the chief justice Roberts, who noted that the supreme court in the past has eschewed the use of general statutes under the doctrine known as “ejusdem generis”.

Roberts suggested he might credit a lower court ruling that found the first part of the statute limited the second part of the statute: if the first part was about tampering with evidence in an investigation, the second part follows with “otherwise” referring to other ways to tamper with evidence.

The skepticism from the conservative-leaning justices on the supreme court was not shared by Sonia Sotomayor, the justice who appeared to firmly see the “otherwise” language being used as a stopgap for any obstructive conduct.

Sotomayor separately raised her own hypothetical of rules that prohibited photographing or otherwise disturbing a theatrical performance. If a defendant heckled and disturbed the performance, no one would be surprised if they were ejected, Sotomayor asked Fischer’s lawyer.

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