June 30, 2024

SCOTUS issues key Jan. 6 ruling that could impact hundreds of defendants' cases

As is always the case in June, the U.S. Supreme Court releases a series of long-awaited rulings with potentially far-reaching consequences, and this year has been no different.

On Friday, the high court found in favor of a demonstrator convicted on a federal obstruction charge stemming from his participation in the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol unrest, and the outcome in his case could impact hundreds of similar cases – including that of former President Donald Trump, as Fox News reports.

Court issues 6-3 decision

In the case of Fischer v. U.S., the justices ruled by a 6-3 margin that an Enron-era federal statute imposing criminal liability on an individual who “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” was improperly broadened to include the defendant's conduct at the Capitol on that fateful day in 2021.

Joseph Fischer, the man convicted under the expansive interpretation of the statute, contended that the law was inapplicable to his situation and that it had only been used in the past to address instances of evidence tampering.

DOJ attorneys countered with the argument that Fischer had engaged in a “deliberate attempt” to halt certification of the 2020 election results, something they believed fell squarely within the purpose of the statute at issue.

A majority of the high court agreed with Fischer, however, reversing a lower court outcome the justices warned could unintentionally ensnare peaceful protesters in a host of different situations that were never contemplated by the statute's drafters.

The case was thus remanded to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals for further review, something which could implicate the prosecutions of hundreds of other Jan. 6 demonstrators as well as two counts brought by special counsel Jack Smith against Trump.

Unexpected alignments emerge

The events of Jan. 6 have long been a political flashpoint dividing the country on ideological lines, in the Fischer case, some unusual judicial alliances emerged.

Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, a liberal jurist appointed by President Joe Biden, joined Chief Justice John Roberts as well as Justices Clarence Thomas, Neil Gorsuch, Samuel Alito, and Brett Kavanaugh in finding that the use of the obstruction statute against Fischer was improper an contrary to the required, plain text reading of its language.

In a concurrence to the majority opinion, Jackson cited prior precedent for the proposition that “In the United States of America, 'men are not subjected to criminal punishment because their conduct offends our patriotic emotions or thwarts a general purpose sought to be effected by specific commands which they have not disobeyed. Nor are they to be held guilty of offenses which the statutes have omitted, though by inadvertence, to define and condemn.”

She further maintained that “this Court's task is to determine what conduct is proscribed by the criminal statute that has been invoked as a basis for the obstruction charge at issue here,” agreeing that in this instance, the defendant's conduct was not.

Adding to the somewhat surprising breakdown of the final vote was Trump appointee Amy Coney Barrett's dissent from the majority, which was joined by liberal Justices Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor, a development that -- at least in part and perhaps just for a short while -- served to silence those who routinely suggest that the philosophical battle lines at the high court are unyielding and unbreachable.

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