Supreme Court Rules in Favor of January 6 Capitol Incident Participant Who Challenged Conviction on Obstruction 

On Friday, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of a participant in the incident at the U.S. Capitol who had challenged his conviction on a federal “obstruction” crime on January 6, 2021. 

In a 6-3 decision, the nation’s High Court stuck to a narrower interpretation of a federal statute that imposes liability criminally on individuals who corruptly “alters, destroys, mutilates, or conceals a record, document, or other object, or attempts to do so, with the intent to impair the object’s integrity or availability for use in an official proceeding.”

The reversal of a lower court’s decision, which the High Court said swept broadly into areas like disruptive but peaceful conduct, returns the case to the D.C. Court of Appeals, which will be able to reassess it considering the Friday ruling.

The case centers on a lawsuit filed by Joseph Fischer, one of over 300 people charged by the DOJ with “obstruction of an official proceeding” in the January 6, 2021, Capitol incident. His attorneys argued the federal statute shouldn’t apply and that it had only been applied to cases of evidence tampering.

The Justice Department argued actions by Fischer were a “deliberate attempt” to stop a Congressional joint session from certifying the 2020 election, therefore qualifying their use of the statute that criminalizes behavior that “otherwise obstructs, influences, or impedes any official proceeding, or attempts to do” and carries a potential penalty of up to 20 years in prison.

But, Chief Justice John Roberts said the government stretched the government too far.

“Although the Government’s all-encompassing interpretation may be literally permissible, it defies the most plausible understanding” of why specific provisions of the statute were put together, “and it renders an unnerving amount of statutory text mere surplusage,” wrote Roberts in the court opinion.

To prove a defendant is guilty of the crime of “obstruction,” the government “must establish that the defendant impaired the availability or integrity for use in an official proceeding of records, documents, objects, or as we earlier explained, other things used in the proceeding, or attempted to do so,” wrote Roberts.

Associate Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, in a concurring opinion, emphasized that despite “the shocking circumstances involved in this case…this Court’s task is to determine what conduct is proscribed by the criminal statute that has been invoked as the basis for the obstruction charge at issue here.”

“Joseph Fischer was charged with violating §1512 (c)(2) by corruptly obstructing ‘a proceeding before Congress, specifically, Congress’s certification of the Electoral College vote.’…That official proceeding plainly used certain records, documents, or objects — including, among others, those relating to the electoral votes themselves…And 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 ‘in ways other than those specified in (c) (1).’ “If so, then Fischer’s prosecution under §1512 (c)(2) can, and should, proceed. That issue remains available for the lower courts to determine on remand,” wrote Justice Brown Jackson.

Three associate justices dissented 

Associate Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, and Amy Coney Barrett dissented.

“There is no getting around it: Section 1512 (c)(2) is an expansive statute. Yet Congress, not this Court, weighs ‘pros and cons of whether a statute should sweep broadly or narrowly,’” wrote Barrett. “Once Congress has set the outer bounds of liability, the Executive Branch has the discretion to select particular cases to prosecute within those boundaries. By atextually narrowing §1512(c)(2), the Court has failed to respect the prerogatives of the political branches.”

Attorney General Merrick Garland stated he was “disappointed” by the Friday decision. Still, he insisted it would not impact the “vast majority of the more than 1,400 defendants charged for their illegal actions on January 6.”

“There are no cases in which the Department charged a January 6 defendant only with the offense at issue in Fischer. For the cases affected by today’s decision, the Department will take appropriate steps to comply with the Court’s ruling,” said Garland.

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

During April oral arguments, Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar fielded several difficult questions from the justices.

Justice Neil Gorsuch, at one point, questioned whether, under the government’s argument, the recent incident of Democrat Representative Jamaal Bowman of New York diverting a House vote by pulling a fire alarm or heckling at the State of the Union would constitute “obstruction.”

“There are multiple elements of the [statute] that I think might not be satisfied by those hypotheticals,” replied Prelogar, adding that obstruction requires “meaningful interference” and “corrupt attempt.”

Chief Justice John Roberts pressed the solicitor general about an opinion issued in 2019 by the Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel (OLC)—an office that serves as the Department’s legal adviser and other executive agencies—that said the statute of obstruction should be narrowly viewed and contradicts the DOJ’s position on the case.

Prelogar stated the opinion was never “formally” adopted, but she was unable to say what the DOJ’s process was for previously accepting an OLC paper.

Since the High Court concluded that the lower courts interpreted the instruction statute too broadly, the case is now sent back to the D.C. federal appeals court to decide whether, under the new narrower legal standard, the obstruction component of the case against Fischer—and presumably other January 6 defendants—can move forward.

The DOJ must now decide whether to drop the obstruction charge for defendants facing additional January 6-related criminal counts or wait until courts have resolved the question fully. For defendants only charged under this statute with obstruction, the DOJ must decide whether to drop its prosecutions entirely.