SCOTUS Appears Split Over Law Used For Jan 6 Rioters & Trump Prosecution

Supreme Court justices this week weighed the scope of the federal obstruction statue that was used as the pretense to prosecute people who breached the U.S. Capitol building on January 6, 2021.

The case before the justices this week is big because it could have potential ramifications for former President Donald Trump in the federal election interference case he is currently facing.

The issue before the high court is whether federal prosecutors are allowed to use a law that was passed after the Enron energy scandal in their prosecution of January 6 defendants.

The law in question makes it illegal to “corruptly” impede or obstruct an official proceeding. Defense attorneys have argued that the Department of Justice has turned the law into a “dragnet.”

One of the provisions of this law bars destroying, concealing, mutilating or altering a document. Before the attacks at the Capitol on January 6, 2021, the statute was never used by prosecutors in any case that didn’t involve tampering of evidence.

Since that attack, though, prosecutors have used it in the case of more than 350 people who breached the Capitol building while a joint session of Congress was being held to certify the Electoral College votes.

Trump is also facing this charge as part of the case brought against him by special counsel Jack Smith. The former president has pleaded not guilty to all of the charges brought against him, which include one count of conspiring to obstruct the proceeding.

The case before the Supreme Court this week is the first time the justices have been tasked with taking on the issue of the January 6 attacks straight on.

During oral arguments, Elizabeth Prelogar, the solicitor general, has argued on behalf of the federal government that the nature of the January 6 events were unprecedented.

As she said in her opening remarks:

“The fundamental wrong committed by many of the rioters, including petitioner, was a deliberate attempt to stop the joint session of Congress from certifying the results of the election. That is, they obstructed Congress’ work in that official proceeding.”

For a large portion of the first half of oral arguments, the justices focused on the statute’s language, particularly its use of the word “otherwise.”

For the federal government, Prelogar argued that the provision for obstruction essentially functions as a “classic catchall” that was designed to cover every other act that would obstruct any official proceeding.

Liberal Justice Elena Kagan signaled that she agreed with that argument, saying that Congress drafted this measure to fill gaps in law that the Enron scandal exposed.

As she told attorney Jeffrey Green, who’s representing January 6 defendant Joseph Fischer:

“This is their backstop provision.”

Many conservative justices, though, signaled during arguments that they were concerned that the DOJ was applying this law too broadly.

As Justice Samuel Alito said:

“What happened on January 6 was very, very serious. But, we need to find out what are the outer reaches of this statute under your interpretation.”