SCOTUS Skeptical About Charge Against Capitol Rioters

A decision against could upend prosecutions and possibly factor into Trump case
By John Johnson,  Newser Staff
Posted Apr 16, 2024 2:03 PM CDT
SCOTUS Skeptical About Charge Against Capitol Rioters
The Supreme Court of the United States.   (AP Photo/Amanda Andrade-Rhoades, File)

The Supreme Court sounded skeptical Tuesday about a key obstruction charge leveled against hundreds of Capitol rioters, reports the Hill. A decision along those lines could force prosecutors to reopen their cases and has the potential to undermine the federal case against former President Trump regarding his efforts to overturn the 2020 election, per the New York Times. A decision is expected in late June.

  • The law: One of the convicted rioters, former police officer Joseph Fischer, challenged his charge of "obstruction of an official proceeding," per the AP. The 22-year-old statute called the Sarbanes-Oxley Act was created in the wake of the Enron banking scandal, and Fischer's lawyers say it was narrowly written to prevent evidence-tampering. In their view, prosecutors went too far in applying the charge to the day's events at the Capitol.
  • Skepticism: Clarence Thomas and other conservative justices suggested prosecutors were guilty of what the Times calls "selective prosecution." For example, Thomas asked: "There have been many violent protests that have interfered with proceedings. Has the government applied this provision to other protests?" And Neil Gorsuch wondered if the charge would be applied to someone who stood up and heckled the court.
  • Answering Thomas: Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar sought to counter Thomas' point about the law. "We have enforced it in a variety of prosecutions that don't focus on evidence tampering," she said. "Now I can't give you an example of enforcing it in a situation where people have violently stormed a building in order to prevent an official proceeding, a specified one, from occurring."

  • Sotomayor: Liberal justices (who are in a 6-3 minority) were more open to a broader interpretation of the law, notes Reuters. Sonia Sotomayor likened the matter to a theater sign that read, "You will be kicked out of the theater if you photograph or record the actors, or otherwise disrupt the performance.'" If "you start yelling, I think no one would question you could be kicked out under this policy, even though yelling has nothing to do with photographing or recording," she said.
  • Trump factor: Two of the federal charges against Trump relate to the law, which has been used against about 350 rioters, per CNN. However, special prosecutor Jack Smith has said that no matter how the Supreme Court rules, it won't affect his case against the former president, reports Politico. In his view, Trump is guilty even under the narrower interpretation of the law because he attempted to create slates of false electors and thus tried to falsify evidence.
(More US Supreme Court stories.)

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