Hundreds of Jan. 6 Defendants Could See Some Charges Dropped, Per Latest SCOTUS Ruling

People scaling the outer wall of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

The U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling today that severely weakens a key federal law that criminalizes obstructing an official proceeding. The ruling stems from the arrest of a man for his part in the Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol and could affect the cases of hundreds of people arrested for their role in the Jan. 6 attack.

The case, Fischer v. United States, stems from the arrest of a former police officer, Joseph Fischer, for his involvement in the Jan. 6 insurrection attempt. According to court documents, Fischer was in the initial rush of people to break into the Capitol’s East Rotunda doors, yelling “Charge!” as he pushed through the crowd to enter the building. During the ensuing chaos, which was captured on video according to the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), Fischer allegedly assaulted at least one police officer, who fell to the ground. 

Fischer was indicted back in March of 2021 after he was identified by the FBI from a video he posted on Facebook. He faced seven criminal charges, including assaulting a police officer and disorderly conduct, but the charge that was ultimately decided by the Supreme Court was for obstruction of a congressional proceeding. 

Today’s 6-3 ruling also has major implications for the hundreds of Jan. 6 defendants who were similarly charged with obstructing an official proceeding — a charge that carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison. Though most other Jan. 6 defendants were charged with a litany of other felonies that aren’t up for debate in the Supreme Court, today’s ruling narrows the scope of charging Jan. 6 defendants with obstructing an official proceeding.

For Trump, who is still awaiting a key opinion from the Supreme Court on whether or not he’s immune from punishment for his role in facilitating the events of Jan. 6, the ruling in Fischer v. United States is moot. Even though Trump was charged with obstruction, prosecutors for the government argued that the former president’s actions on Jan. 6 meet a narrow interpretation of the statute at hand. 

At the heart of the ruling is a strict reading of the obstruction statute, which “prohibits obstruction of congressional inquiries and investigations.” The statute was enacted in 2002, under the Sarbanes-Oxley Act in the wake of the Enron scandal, and makes a point to say that obstructing an official proceeding — like the certification of an election — includes an act that “alters, destroys, mutilates or conceals a record, document or other object.” Fischer challenged the charge against him for obstructing an official proceeding, claiming that the law should not apply to his case because it specifically applies to tampering with records, documents, objects or other evidence. A U.S. District Court judge agreed in March of 2022, dismissing the charge. But the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit reversed the ruling and reapplied the charges to Fischer in April of 2023, setting the stage for the Supreme Court to swoop in on the issue.

In the ruling to reverse the D.C. Circuit Court ruling, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the majority’s opinion that, “to prove a violation of Section 1512(c)(2), the Government must establish that the defendant impaired the availability or integrity for use in an official proceeding of records, documents, objects, or as we earlier explained, other things used in the proceeding, or attempted to do so.” Roberts went on to explain that, in the Court’s view, if they were to take a broad reading of the statute in question, as the lawyers for the U.S. government argued they should, “that novel interpretation would criminalize a broad swath of prosaic conduct, exposing activists and lobbyists alike to decades in prison.”

With the ruling, the case now goes back to the district court, which must determine how to apply the obstruction statute in such a way that complies with the Supreme Court’s stance.

Read the decision here.