SCOTUS Considering Obstruction Statute in Jan. 6 Prosecutions

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The U.S. Supreme Court recently granted certiorari in Fischer v. United States. The case challenges the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals’ interpretation of a federal statute prohibiting obstruction of congressional inquiries and investigations. The law has been used in theprosecutions of numerous defendants charged in connection with the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, including former President Donald Trump.

Facts of the Case

The key issue before the Courtis whether individuals who allegedly assaulted law enforcement officers while participating in the Capitol riot can be charged with corruptly obstructing, influencing, or impeding an official proceeding, in violation of18 U.S.C. § 1512(c)(2). The statute provides: “Whoever corruptly—(1) 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 (2) otherwise obstructs, influences, or impedes any official proceeding, or attempts to do so, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than 20 years, or both.”

Joseph Fischer was charged by indictment with various offenses arising from their alleged participation in the Capitol riot on January 6, 2021, including obstructing an official proceeding under Section 1512(c)2. U.S. District Judge Carl J. Nichols of the District of Columbia dismissed the 1512(c)2 charges, agreeing with Fisher that the statute is exclusively directed to crimes related to documents, records, or other objects.

D.C. Circuit’s Decision

The D.C. Circuit reversed. It held that Section 1512(c)(2) encompasses all forms of obstructive conduct and is not limited to obstructive conduct with respect to “a document, record, or other object” or to “general evidence impairment.” According to D.C. Circuit Judge Florence Pan, “That natural, broad reading of the statute is consistent with prior interpretations of the words it uses and the structure it employs.”

Judge Gregory Katsas dissented. “Because my colleagues reject an evidence-focused interpretation of section 1512(c) and instead adopt the government’s all-encompassing reading, I respectfully dissent,” he wrote.

Issues Before the Supreme Court

Fisher appealed to the Supreme Court, arguing that “[t]he D.C. Circuit’s opinion conflicts with this Court’s precedent, diverges from the construction of Section 1512(c) by other courts of appeal, and results—as Judge Katsas observed—in an ‘implausibly broad’ provision that is unconstitutional in many applications.” The Court granted certiorari on December 13, 2023. The justices have agreed to consider the following question:

Whether the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit erred in construing18 U.S.C. § 1512(c), which prohibits obstruction of congressional inquiries and investigations, to include acts unrelated to investigations and evidence.

Oral arguments have not yet been scheduled but are likely to take place in the spring of 2024. A decision is expected by the end of the term in June.

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