Supreme Court Narrows Interpretation of Obstruction Statute, Favoring Jan. 6 Rioter Joseph Fischer

Featured & Cover Supreme Court Narrows Interpretation of Obstruction Statute Favoring Jan 6 Rioter Joseph Fischer

The Supreme Court ruled on Friday in favor of Joseph Fischer, a participant in the January 6, 2021, Capitol riot, who contested his conviction for federal “obstruction.” In a 6-3 decision, the Court adopted a narrower interpretation of a federal statute that criminalizes anyone 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.”

This ruling overturns a previous lower court decision, which the Supreme Court found to be overly broad, encompassing peaceful yet disruptive conduct. The case will now return to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals for reassessment in light of this new ruling.

Fischer, among over 300 individuals charged with “obstruction of an official proceeding” during the Capitol riot, argued through his lawyers that the statute should not apply to his actions. They claimed it had historically been used only in evidence-tampering cases. The Justice Department, however, maintained that Fischer’s actions constituted a “deliberate attempt” to halt a joint session of Congress from certifying the 2020 election, justifying the use of the statute which criminalizes behavior that “otherwise obstructs, influences, or impedes any official proceeding, or attempts to do so,” carrying penalties of up to 20 years in prison.

Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for the majority, noted that the government had overextended the law. He stated, “Although the Government’s all-encompassing interpretation may be literally permissible, it defies the most plausible understanding” of the statute’s provisions and “renders an unnerving amount of statutory text mere surplusage.” Roberts elaborated that to convict someone under the “obstruction” crime, it must be proven that the defendant impaired the integrity or availability of records, documents, or objects for an official proceeding or attempted to do so.

Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, in a concurring opinion, stressed that the Court’s role was to interpret what the statute criminalizes, despite “the shocking circumstances involved in this case.” She wrote, “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).’”

She concluded that Fischer’s prosecution under §1512(c)(2) could proceed, with the lower courts tasked to determine this on remand.

Justices Amy Coney Barrett, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan dissented. Barrett argued, “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.’ 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 expressed disappointment with the decision but stated it would not affect the majority of the over 1,400 defendants charged for their actions on January 6. He assured that the Department would “take appropriate steps to comply with the Court’s ruling” and continue to use “all available tools to hold accountable those criminally responsible for the January 6 attack on our democracy.”

During oral arguments in April, Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar faced rigorous questioning from the justices. Justice Neil Gorsuch inquired if the government’s stance meant heckling at the State of the Union address or incidents like Rep. Jaamal Bowman pulling a fire alarm to divert a House vote would constitute “obstruction.” Prelogar responded that such scenarios might not meet all statutory requirements, highlighting that obstruction necessitates “meaningful interference” and “corrupt intent.”

Chief Justice Roberts also queried Prelogar about a 2019 DOJ’s Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) opinion, which suggested the obstruction statute should be narrowly interpreted, seemingly contradicting the DOJ’s current position. Prelogar noted that the opinion was never “formally” adopted and was unsure of the DOJ’s formal acceptance process for OLC papers.

Following the Supreme Court’s decision, the case now returns to the D.C. federal appeals court to determine if Fischer’s actions meet the narrower legal standard for obstruction. The Justice Department must decide whether to drop the obstruction charge for defendants facing additional charges related to January 6 or to wait until the courts have fully resolved the issue. For those only charged with obstruction under this statute, the DOJ must consider dropping the prosecutions entirely.

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