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Supreme Court to decide issue tied to hundreds of Jan. 6 cases

Defendant challenges use of statute that prosecutors also used to charge Trump

The Supreme Court building.
The Supreme Court building. (Celal Gunes/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

The Supreme Court accepted a case Wednesday that could affect hundreds of prosecutions tied to the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol as well as one of the federal criminal cases against former President Donald Trump.

Defendant Joseph Fischer has challenged the Justice Department’s charges that he was “corruptly” obstructing, influencing or impeding a proceeding before Congress when he entered the Capitol during the attack.

The DOJ has charged more than 300 people with violating the statute, which carries a 20-year maximum sentence, according to information published by the U.S. attorney’s office in Washington.

Fischer has argued that the statute, which Congress passed in 2002 as part of a broader law dealing with financial crimes, was meant to deal with document destruction, not his conduct.

The government has argued that Fischer’s actions “prevented the elected government officials from accessing and counting the certificates of electoral votes as the Electoral Count Act requires,” in a brief arguing against the justices taking the case.

The fact that hundreds of other people did the same thing should not immunize Fischer from facing consequences, the government argued.

Wednesday’s order did not set a date for the oral arguments, but the justices could end up hearing the case and deciding it before the end of June.

The case could also affect the federal prosecution of Trump in Washington, where the law at issue is also one of the four charges against the former president in the case that alleges he attempted to overturn his loss in the 2020 election.

That charge focuses on Trump’s effort to disrupt the counting of Electoral College votes on Jan. 6, 2021, including his attempt to persuade then-Vice President Mike Pence to toss the electoral votes of states that Joe Biden won and to use the chaos of the attack to stall the counting of votes.

The prosecution against Trump has already hit the Supreme Court on another issue. Special counsel John L. “Jack” Smith asked the justices on Monday to review Trump’s claims of presidential immunity and keep a March trial date on track.

In Fischer’s case, Judge Carl Nichols of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia had dismissed the charge, ruling that the statute should not apply to rioters who stormed the Capitol building and disrupted the counting of Electoral College votes.

The government then appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, which reversed Nichols in a 2-1 decision. Judges Florence Pan and Justin Walker held that the statute could apply to congressional proceedings, not just documents. The majority opinion, written by Pan, criticized Nichols’ “cramped, document-focused” reading of the statute.

“We cannot assume, and think it unlikely, that Congress used expansive language to address such narrow concerns,” she wrote. “We must accept, and think it far more likely, that Congress said what it meant and meant what it said.”

Judge Gregory Katsas dissented, arguing that the statute should be limited to acts that “hinder the flow of truthful evidence to a proceeding.”

After issuing the decision in the Fischer case, the D.C. Circuit upheld another use of the statute in an appeal brought by former police sergeant Thomas Robertson in October in another split decision. There, Pan and Judge Cornelia Pillard voted to uphold the prosecution’s use of the statute, while Judge Karen Henderson dissented.

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