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Supreme Court casts doubt on obstruction charges against hundreds of Jan. 6 rioters

Police hold back supporters of then President Donald Trump as they gather outside the U.S. Capitol's Rotunda on Jan. 6, 2021, in Washington, D.C.    (Olivier Douliery/AFP/GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA/TNS)
By David G. Savage Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court cast doubt Tuesday on the legality of obstruction charges lodged against some 300 rioters arrested for breaking into the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

The court’s conservatives questioned whether the 2002 Sarbanes-Oxley Act, which was aimed at corporate accounting fraud, can be used more broadly to prosecute those who obstruct “any official proceeding,” including Congress’ 2021 certification of President Biden’s election victory.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justice Neil M. Gorsuch noted that the law made it a crime to destroy or conceal documents to impair an “official proceeding,” but they voiced doubt over extending that to any disruptions of a proceeding.

If someone “pulls a fire alarm” to delay a vote in Congress, is that a federal felony subject to 20 years in prison?,” Gorsuch asked.

While the justices sounded divided, most of the conservatives suggested they were skeptical of upholding the obstruction charges.

Such a ruling would deal a blow to the Jan. 6 prosecutions, but it would not prevent punishing them for their actions.

More than 1,200 rioters were arrested for the Jan. 6 break in at the Capitol.

Most were charged with assaulting the officers on duty or with disorderly and disruptive conduct. Some were also charged with carrying dangerous or deadly weapons.

A few hundred were also charged with seeking to obstruct an official proceeding.

One of those was Joseph Fischer, an off-duty Pennsylvania police officer, who said on social media he expected the attack on the Capitol “might get violent” but that it was needed “to send a message that we the people hold the real power.”

When Fischer was arrested, he was charged with six counts of assault and disruption as well as seventh charge of obstruction, a charge which could send him to prison for several years.

A federal judge rejected the obstruction charge, but the U.S. Court of Appeals restored it in a 2-1 decision.

On Tuesday, the Supreme Court heard an appeal from Fischer’s public defender contending the obstruction charge should be thrown out on the grounds that the law protects only documents and evidence, not the proceeding itself.

At issue is how to interpret two clauses in the law. It states it is a crime for someone 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; or otherwise obstructs, influences, or impedes any official proceeding, or attempts to do so,.”

Solicitor Gen. Elizabeth Prelogar said the Jan. 6 rioters intended to obstruct Congress from tallying the electoral votes that were certify victory in the 2020 election.

This was “obstructive conduct” and it is exactly what the words of the law say, she argued.

But the chief justice disagreed. The obstruction clause “doesn’t stand alone,” he said. It is controlled by the earlier reference to documents and records, he said.