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The Supreme Court faced a decision in a case involving participants in the Jan. 6, 2021, U.S. Capitol riot. AP Photo/John Minchillo, File

Supreme Court makes prosecution of Trump on obstruction charge more difficult, with ruling to narrowly define law used against him and Jan. 6 rioters

The indictments – and in some cases, the convictions – of hundreds of people charged with participating in the riot at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, will have to be reconsidered, and possibly dropped, because of a ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court on June 28, 2024. Among those charged using a broad interpretation of the obstruction law now narrowed by the high court: former President Donald Trump.

In its decision in Fischer v. United States, the Supreme Court held that a federal statute that prohibits obstructing an official proceeding may not apply to three defendants who were charged with participating in the U.S. Capitol riot. Although former President Donald Trump is not a defendant in the case, special counsel Jack Smith has charged him separately with violating the same statute.

As a law professor who teaches and writes in the fields of constitutional law and federal courts, I’ll explain what the court’s decision means for Jan. 6 defendants – and for Smith’s case against Trump.

Charges against Capitol rioters

According to their indictments, Joseph Fischer, Edward Lang and Garret Miller were present at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. Prosecutors say that all three men entered the Capitol building and assaulted police officers during the riot. One of the men, Lang, brandished a bat and a stolen police shield, and another, Miller, later called for the assassination of U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on social media.

Federal prosecutors charged the three men with various crimes, including assault on a federal officer, disorderly conduct on the Capitol grounds and obstructing a congressional proceeding. That last charge is the one at issue in the Supreme Court appeal.

Before trial, the defendants argued that the law the prosecutors had used to charge them with obstruction applied only to evidence tampering, not the violent disruption of a congressional proceeding. The district court agreed and dismissed the charge, but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit reversed and sent the case back for trial.

The Supreme Court then agreed to hear the case, putting the trial on hold while it considered the dispute over the scope of the obstruction law.

A man in a dark coat and red tie raising his fist against a background of many US flags.
The Supreme Court’s decision could affect the prosecution of former President Donald Trump for his attempts to overturn the 2020 presidential election. AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File

Defining a catch-all term

In a 6-3 opinion by Chief Justice John Roberts, the Supreme Court agreed with the defendants and held that the statute prohibits only evidence tampering. It then sent the case back to the appeals court to decide whether the defendants violated the law under that narrower reading by trying to prevent Congress from receiving and certifying the states’ true electoral votes.

The court began with the text of the obstruction law. The law penalizes anyone who “alters, destroys, mutilates, or conceals a record, document, or other object” or who “otherwise obstructs, influences, or impedes any official proceeding.” The government argued that the defendants had “otherwise obstruct(ed)” proceedings in Congress to certify the results of the 2020 election.

But the court rejected that argument, holding that the phrase “otherwise obstructs” refers only to obstruction that – like altering, destroying, mutilating or concealing a record, document or object – impairs the availability or integrity of evidence for use in an official proceeding. The law’s catch-all for “otherwise obstructing” an official proceeding must be read in common with the list of actions that precedes it, the court explained. Otherwise, the list would be redundant.

The court also pointed to the law’s historical background. Congress, the court explained, enacted this specific obstruction law in 2002 in the wake of the Enron accounting fraud scandal. Its aim was to fill a gap in the nation’s existing obstruction laws, which at the time prohibited directing a third party to destroy incriminating evidence but not destroying the evidence oneself.

The government’s reading of the law, the court explained, would stretch it far beyond that purpose, prohibiting forms of obstruction that had nothing to do with evidence and that Congress never intended to criminalize.

What this means for Jan. 6 defendants – and for Trump

Five men and four women are wearing black robes as they pose for a portrait.
The Supreme Court, from left in front row: Sonia Sotomayor, Clarence Thomas, John Roberts, Samuel Alito and Elena Kagan; and from left in back row: Amy Coney Barrett, Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Ketanji Brown Jackson. Alex Wong/Getty Images

The Supreme Court’s decision does not end the case against the Fischer defendants, who will likely stand trial on their assault and disorderly conduct charges.

But it may lead to the dismissal of obstruction charges, or reversal of obstruction convictions, for other Jan. 6 defendants. According to an NPR database, federal prosecutors have charged at least 250 other defendants with obstruction of an official proceeding, and 128 have been convicted.

The ruling may also undermine special counsel Jack Smith’s case against former President Donald Trump, whom Smith has charged with obstruction under the same law. If that case survives a separate pending Supreme Court appeal, the former president will likely seek dismissal of that charge.

Trump may not succeed, however, as the obstruction charge against him is based in part on the allegation that he organized slates of electors to certify false election results to Congress. That may amount to impairing the integrity of the evidence used in the certification proceedings.

And the obstruction charge is also not the only count the former president faces. But the ruling may narrow the case and make it more difficult for the special counsel to present evidence to the jury concerning the violence that occurred on Jan. 6. Under this new ruling, that violence alone may not count as obstruction.

The Fischer case also shows how sometimes, especially in high-stakes cases, the justices can use methods of legal reasoning that they are quick to criticize in other contexts. In the opinion, members of the Supreme Court’s conservative majority cited the legislative history of the obstruction law – evidence that conservative jurists such as the late Justice Antonin Scalia often called unreliable.

The Supreme Court’s decision in the Fischer case may have a profound effect on the special counsel’s historic prosecution of former President Trump.

But even if it does not, it still sheds important light on the court’s inner workings and the federal government’s power to safeguard the integrity of its proceedings.

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