Supreme Court Backs Jan. 6 Defendant, Curbing Enron Law Use

(Bloomberg) -- The US Supreme Court sided with a Jan. 6 Capitol riot defendant in a ruling that could affect hundreds of prosecutions, including the criminal case in Washington against former President Donald Trump.

Most Read from Bloomberg

Voting 6-3, the justices limited the Justice Department’s use of a 2002 law that makes it a crime to obstruct an official proceeding. The majority said that law, enacted in response to the Enron Corp. collapse, is designed to protect documents and other records and wouldn’t apply simply to the act of trying to stop a congressional proceeding.

Given that the law was “enacted to address the Enron disaster, not some further flung set of dangers, it is unlikely that Congress responded with such an unfocused and grossly incommensurate patch,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the majority.

The case divided the court along unusual lines, with liberal Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson joining the majority and conservative Justice Amy Coney Barrett joining the dissent. Barrett blasted the majority for doing “textual backflips.”

Trump, who is campaigning to return to the White House, is likely to invoke the ruling to try to pare back the federal prosecution against him over his efforts to overturn his 2020 election loss, though Special Counsel Jack Smith has said the high court case won’t affect the ex-president. The Supreme Court is expected to rule Monday on an even bigger case, involving Trump’s bid for immunity from prosecution in the election case.

The ruling also could have ramifications well beyond Trump. Prosecutors have invoked the law in more than 350 Capitol riot cases, with more than 120 defendants so far being convicted and sentenced under the provision. The provision authorizes up to 20 years in prison for violators, though Capitol riot defendants have received only a small fraction of that sentence.

The decision is a win for Joseph Fischer, a former Pennsylvania police officer who stormed the Capitol. A grand jury returned a seven-count indictment against Fischer in November 2021. Before the Jan. 6 riot, Fischer allegedly sent text messages advocating violence, including one that said “If Trump don’t get in we better get to war.”

Attorney General Merrick Garland criticized the high court decision for undercutting “an important federal statute” that the Justice Department has been using in cases brought against “those most responsible for that attack.” But the attorney general said the impact of the decision should be limited.

“The vast majority of the more than 1,400 defendants charged for their illegal actions on January 6 will not be affected by this decision,” Garland said in a statement. “There are no cases in which the Department charged a January 6 defendant only with the offense at issue in Fischer.”

Fischer’s lawyers were not immediately reached for comment.

“A person obstructs justice only when he impairs evidence,” said Nick Smith, a defense attorney who represents other Jan. 6 defendants. “We are gratified that the Supreme Court affirmed that common sense notion.”

52 Convictions

According to the US attorney’s office in Washington, 82% of the Jan. 6 cases to date involved defendants who either weren’t charged with obstruction or weren’t convicted of it. The ruling will “most significantly” affect about 52 people convicted of obstruction and no other felony, with 27 of those now serving a prison sentence, the office said. It didn’t indicate what the next steps are in those cases.

The high court left open the possibility that people still could be charged for interfering with the availability of “other things” besides physical documents, such as “witness testimony and intangible information.” The majority also made clear that the ruling didn’t automatically mean any Jan. 6 prosecution involving the obstruction charge had to be dismissed. The court sent the case back to the lower courts to reconsider the issue.

The disputed law applies to a person who corruptly “alters, destroys, mutilates, or conceals a record, document, or other object” with the intent to undermine an official proceeding. A second prong — the one being invoked against Fischer and other Jan. 6 defendants — applies to anyone who “otherwise obstructs, influences, or impedes any official proceeding.”

Barrett said in her dissent that the majority “simply cannot believe that Congress meant what it said.” In an opinion joined by Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, Barrett said the court “does textual backflips to find some way — any way — to narrow the reach” of the law.

Jackson’s concurring opinion said the majority had correctly interpreted the Enron law and rightfully vacated the lower court ruling against Fischer. But she said the high court’s finding doesn’t mean the former police officer is completely off the hook for attempting to block the certification of Joe Biden’s victory over Trump.

“That official proceeding plainly used certain records, documents, or objects — including, among others, those relating to the electoral votes themselves,” Jackson wrote. Fischer’s alleged conduct may have involved the impairment or attempted impairment of “the availability or integrity of” those documents, she wrote.

“If so, then Fischer’s prosecution” under that law “can, and should, proceed,” Jackson said. “That issue remains available for the lower courts to determine on remand.”

‘Most Natural Reading’

A federal appeals court had said in a 2-1 decision that the second part of the law could apply to Jan. 6 defendants. Writing the court’s lead opinion, Judge Florence Pan said the “most natural reading” of the second prong was that it “applies to all forms of corrupt obstruction of an official proceeding” other than those covered by the provision’s first part.

The Constitution sets Jan. 6 as the date for Congress, with the vice president presiding, to count the electoral votes that formally determine who becomes the next president. The 2021 riot forced a delay of several hours before lawmakers could reconvene to make Biden’s 2020 election victory official.

Fischer says he arrived at the Capitol grounds after Congress had recessed and wasn’t part of the mob that forced the certification to stop.

Before the Jan. 6 riot, Fischer allegedly said in another misspelling-laden text that “they should storm the capital and drag all the democrates into the street and have a mob trial.” He is accused of assaulting at least one police officer during the riot.

The case is Fischer v. United States, 23-5572.

(Updates with excerpts from Barrett opinion, comment from Jan. 6 defense lawyer.)

Most Read from Bloomberg Businessweek

©2024 Bloomberg L.P.