Supreme Court limits scope of obstruction law used in Jan. 6 prosecutions



About 350 Jan. 6 defendants have faced obstruction charges now thrown into doubt by the court.


The Supreme Court has narrowed the scope of a federal law used to charge hundreds of people with obstructing Congress during the riot at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, jeopardizing many of those criminal cases.

The 6-3 ruling on Friday — in which two justices crossed the court’s usual ideological lines — may force federal prosecutors to reconsider charges in dozens of pending cases, and it could require judges to resentence some defendants already sent to prison for interfering with Congress’ effort to certify Joe Biden’s victory in the last presidential contest. About 350 of the 1,400-plus charged Jan. 6 defendants have faced obstruction charges now thrown into doubt by the court.

The majority concluded that the felony obstruction provision passed in 2002 in the wake of the Enron scandal applies only in cases where prosecutors can show a defendant attempted to tamper or interfere with documents or other records related to a government proceeding. The court rejected the government’s view that the disputed provision covers other activities that could obstruct an official proceeding — a ruling that hinged on an extensive analysis of the word “otherwise” built into the statute.

“Reading [the provision] to cover all forms of obstructive conduct would override Congress’s careful delineation of which penalties were appropriate for which offenses,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the court’s majority.

The ruling may have a limited impact on the obstruction charges former President Donald Trump faces for his effort to thwart the certification of the 2020 election results. Special counsel Jack Smith has argued that even under the narrowest interpretation of the statute, Trump is still culpable for obstruction because he sought to introduce fabricated documents — false electoral vote certificates — as part of his sweeping bid to stay in power.

That argument, however, may not be available in many other Jan. 6-related cases. If prosecutors cannot show that rioters intended to impede the tallying of physical electoral vote certificates, the Justice Department likely will have to drop obstruction charges.

The high court’s decision featured a somewhat unusual alignment of the justices. Roberts’ narrower view of the provision won the votes of most of his fellow conservatives plus liberal Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson. Conservative Justice Amy Coney Barrett wrote the dissent with the court’s two remaining liberals.

Roberts warned that the Justice Department’s “novel interpretation would criminalize a broad swath of prosaic conduct, exposing activists and lobbyists alike to decades in prison.”

The case centered on the prosecution of Joseph Fischer, a Jan. 6 defendant who joined the mob that stormed the Capitol and participated in a physical confrontation with police. Fischer faced seven charges for his conduct — including felony obstruction, which carries a 20-year maximum penalty.

U.S. District Judge Carl Nichols dismissed the charge against Fischer two years ago, triggering appeals that led to fractured rulings from the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals. Fischer appealed to the Supreme Court, which took up the case in December. Since then, dozens of Jan. 6 cases have been paused and some defendants who had been convicted and jailed for obstruction were released to ensure that they didn’t spend more time in prison than their sentences might have warranted without the obstruction charge.

Nichols, however, was alone in his decision, with more than a dozen judges in the Washington, D.C., federal district court taking the opposite view and backing the Justice Department’s interpretation of the key language in the federal obstruction law.

Though she sided with the majority, Jackson may also have offered a roadmap to preserve most of the obstruction charges against Jan. 6 defendants.

In a concurring opinion, Jackson wrote that even with the narrower version of the obstruction statute, prosecutors may be able to prove that Jan. 6 defendants sought to prevent Congress from having access to the physical electoral certificates needed to confirm Biden’s win. That might satisfy the requirement that those facing obstruction charges tamper with actual documents, although it’s unclear how it would apply in cases already tried.

“It might well be that Fischer’s conduct, as alleged here, involved the impairment (or the attempted impairment) of the availability or integrity of things used during the January 6 proceeding,” meaning that his prosecution “can, and should, proceed,” Jackson wrote. Lower courts will need to sort out the precise impact of the Supreme Court’s decision, she added.

Barrett and the other dissenters said the better reading of the obstruction provision was that, in the wake of the destruction of records related to the Enron probe, Congress was trying to impose a sweeping prohibition on acts that could interfere with official proceedings.

“The broader statutory context works against the Court’s interpretation,” Barrett wrote, joined by Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan. “Congress, not this Court, weighs the ‘pros and cons of whether a statute should sweep broadly or narrowly.’”

Attorney General Merrick Garland did not indicate what the department will do in response to the ruling but emphasized that it will influence only a small fraction of the cases against Jan. 6 defendants.

“For the cases affected by today’s decision, the Department will take appropriate steps to comply with the Court’s ruling,” Garland said. “We will continue to use all available tools to hold accountable those criminally responsible for the January 6 attack on our democracy.”