The United States Supreme Court concluded that the law Jan. 6th Defendant was charged with violating applies solely to evidence tampering,

Supreme Court Dismisses Charges Against Former Officer in January 6 Case: Fischer v. United States

In Fischer v. United States, the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) delivered a significant ruling last Friday, dismissing the charges against former Pennsylvania police officer Joseph Fischer, who entered the U.S. Capitol during the January 6, 2021, attacks. By a 6-3 vote, the justices concluded that the law Fischer was charged with violating—18 U.S.C. § 1512(c)(2), which bars obstruction of an official proceeding—applies solely to evidence tampering, such as destruction of records or documents in official proceedings.

Impact on Other January 6 Defendants

This decision has the potential to affect charges against more than 300 other defendants from the January 6 riot. The same law is central to two of the four charges brought by Special Counsel Jack Smith against former President Donald Trump in Washington, D.C. The Supreme Court heard oral arguments on April 25 regarding Trump’s claims of immunity, but a decision has not yet been issued. Smith has argued that even if the court ruled in favor of Fischer, the charges against Trump could still proceed, partially because they involved efforts to use false electoral certificates during the joint session of Congress.

The Legal Background

The pivotal law in Fischer’s case is 18 U.S.C. § 1512(c)(2), which criminalizes anyone who “otherwise obstructs, influences, or impedes any official proceeding.” U.S. District Judge Carl Nichols had initially dismissed the obstruction charge against Fischer, reasoning that Section 1512(c)(2) applied only to cases of evidence tampering that obstructs an official proceeding, aligning it with the previous subsection, Section 1512(c)(1). The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit later reversed Nichols’ ruling, asserting that the statute unambiguously applied to all forms of corrupt obstruction of an official proceeding.

On Friday, the Supreme Court vacated the D.C. Circuit’s decision, narrowing the law’s interpretation to solely cover evidence tampering.

Chief Justice Roberts’ Opinion

Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for the majority, explained that statutory construction principles guide courts to construe a general phrase by the terms linked to it. He noted that subsection (c)(1) of the statute provides specific examples of evidence tampering, such as altering a record or concealing a document. Therefore, he reasoned, the scope of subsection (c)(2) should be limited by these examples. Roberts pointed out that if subsection (c)(2) were as broad as the government suggested, Congress would not have needed to list specific examples in subsection (c)(1).

Roberts also cited the statute’s legislative history for support. Before the Enron scandal, the statute did not create liability for individuals who actually shredded documents. Congress enacted Section 1512(c) to address this loophole, making it unlikely that they intended a broad catchall provision hidden in the statute. The expansive interpretation proposed by the government could criminalize a wide range of activities, potentially exposing activists and lobbyists to severe penalties.

Concurring and Dissenting Opinions

Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson joined Roberts’ opinion but filed a concurrence, emphasizing that the court’s role is to determine what conduct the criminal statute proscribes. Jackson suggested that it is unlikely Congress would insert a broad criminal obstruction statute without clarifying its intent.

Justice Amy Coney Barrett, joined by Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, dissented. Barrett argued that the statute’s text supports the government’s broader interpretation and criticized the majority for narrowing the statute’s reach. She asserted that subsection (c)(2) covers actions affecting official proceedings and that concerns about lengthy sentences for activists and lobbyists are mitigated by the requirement that the defendant acted “corruptly” and the absence of a mandatory minimum sentence.

Future Implications

When the case returns to the D.C. Circuit, Roberts instructed the court to reconsider the obstruction charge against Fischer based on the Supreme Court’s interpretation of Section 1512(c)(2). Attorney General Merrick Garland expressed disappointment with the ruling but noted that it would not impact the majority of the over 1,400 defendants charged for their actions on January 6, as the offense at issue in Fischer was not the sole charge in any cases.

This ruling could have far-reaching consequences for future prosecutions related to the January 6 attacks and other cases involving obstruction of official proceedings. As the legal landscape continues to evolve, the interpretation and application of obstruction statutes will remain a critical issue in federal law.

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