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

David G. Savage, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Political News

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 Joe 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 it to any disruptions of a proceeding.

“Would a sit-in that disrupts a trial qualify?” Gorsuch asked. “Would a heckler in today’s audience qualify? Would pulling a fire alarm before a vote qualify for 20 years in prison?”

While the court’s three liberals appeared to agree with prosecutors that the law can be read broadly, the six conservatives sounded skeptical.

A ruling that limits the obstruction law could also undercut the prosecution of former President Donald Trump. Two of the four criminal charges against him are based on the obstruction law.


Special counsel Jack Smith, however, has said the charges against Trump rest on stronger grounds because Trump allegedly schemed to submit false slates of electors to Congress.

Trump’s case did not figure in Tuesday’s argument. Next week, justices will hear Trump’s claim that he is immune from criminal charges that arose from his “official acts” as president.

The court’s ruling in Fischer v. United States could also deal a blow to other Jan. 6 prosecutions, though it would not prevent the punishing of those who broke into the Capitol on the day Congress was due to certify Biden’s victory in the 2020 election.

More than 1,200 of the rioters were arrested for their actions. Most were charged with assaulting the police officers who were on duty or with disorderly and disruptive conduct. Some were also charged with carrying dangerous or deadly weapons.


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