Fischer v. U.S

Charging Jan. 6 rioters with obstruction

On January 6, 2021, Joseph W. Fischer attended the Stop the Steal rally at the Ellipse in Washington, D.C.. Prosecutors said that Fischer had a physical encounter with police at the Capitol, urged on rioters during the Capitol attack, and said that he wanted to go "to war" and take "democratic Congress to the gallows". Fischer's attorneys said that Fischer entered the Capitol building at around 3:25 p.m. after it had already been breached and Congress had already recessed and exited the building about four minutes later.

The felony charge of obstructing an official proceeding has been used to charge more than 300 individuals in connection with the January 6 Capitol attack and has resulted in more than 150 convictions and guilty pleas. Among those charged with the provision include former President Donald Trump. The criminal statute covering "whoever corruptly alters, destroys, mutilates or conceals a record, document or other object ... or otherwise obstructs, influences or impedes any official proceeding" had been created by the 2002 Sarbanes–Oxley Act in response to the Enron scandal, when accountants shredding crucial documents did so without violating any laws. Before its utilization in the January 6 charges, prosecutors had never applied the statute in cases that did not involve evidence tampering.

What they ruled: Federal prosecutors improperly charged a Jan. 6 rioter with obstructing or impeding an official proceeding, using a statute that the court said must involve impairing “the availability or integrity” of records, documents or other objects.

Why it matters: The ruling essentially says that prosecutors overreached in using the charge against Jan. 6 defendants, since it was created to address document shredding and other fraud after the collapse of the energy giant Enron.

 Hundreds of charged or convicted rioters can now go back to court to ask for their charges to be thrown out. Most also face other charges or have completed their sentences, but a few dozen could see their jail time reduced.

The ruling could also affect the Justice Department’s stalled federal election interference case against Trump. Two of the four charges he faces are based on the obstruction statute. But prosecutors say those charges should still stand.

The Supreme Court narrowed the scope of an obstruction charge used against Jan. 6 defendants, in a 6-3 ruling authored by Chief Justice John Roberts. 

Whied this could be an example of textualism, an approach to the law that says that when interpreting a statute, a judge should first defer to the plain language as written by Congress. Critics have suggested that the mental gymnastics employed by the Court to reach the result in Fischer highlight how this Court often only pretends to deploy textualism in pursuit of its preferred outcome. 

Amy Barrett's  dissent: she states  the most natural reading of this statute is that anyone who broke into the US Capitol to disrupt certification of the 2020 election “can be tried for ‘obstructing, influencing, or impeding an official proceeding.’” Subsection (2) of this law “is a very broad provision.” The case that it applies to January 6 defendants “seems open and shut.”