Supreme Court takes up case involving disputed federal obstruction statute at heart of charges against Trump, Jan. 6 defendants

December 13, 2023
Ben Marquis

The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to take up a case involving a disputed charge against a Jan. 6 Capitol riot defendant that is also central to Special Counsel Jack Smith's 2020 election-related prosecution of former President Donald Trump.

There had been mystery and rampant speculation among the media earlier in the week as the particular case had been relisted by the Supreme Court in a Monday orders list but had not decided at that time whether or not the Jan. 6 defendant's petition would be accepted, Newsweek reported.

The case involves a dispute over the government's broad interpretation of a federal obstruction statute that has been applied to hundreds of Jan. 6 defendants as well as the former president.

Supreme Court takes up the case

After the case known as Fischer v. United States was relisted on Monday with no clarification of whether or not it would be accepted, Newsweek reported on the media speculation that the case was both likely to be taken up at some point and just as likely spelled bad news for the Justice Department's interpretation of the statute in question and the hundreds of cases that included the disputed charge.

It didn't take long for the mystery to be solved, as SCOTUSblog reported that another orders list was released on Wednesday which made it clear that the Fischer case had been picked up and would be decided in the current term.

At issue in the case is 18 U.S.C. Sec. 1512(c), a witness tampering statute, which states: "Whoever corruptly -- (1) alters, destroys, mutilates, or conceals a record, document, or other object, or attempts to do so, with the intent to impair the object’s integrity or availability for use in an official proceeding; or (2) otherwise obstructs, influences, or impedes any official proceeding, or attempts to do so, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than 20 years, or both."

Fischer and others similarly situated have argued that prosecutors have grossly expanded their interpretation of the statute that was originally intended to deal with the destruction of evidence in financial crimes to be more broadly applied to Jan. 6 defendants -- and former President Trump.

A district judge had agreed with Fischer and dismissed the charge only to be overruled by the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, which reinstated the charge and set the stage for Fischer's petition to the Supreme Court in September, which was twice considered by the justices in conferences but was delayed in being picked up until now.

Likely good news for Jan. 6 defendants and Trump; bad news for federal prosecutors

Newsweek reported that following the initial relisting of the case on Monday, conservative legal analyst Julie Kelly that it was "a good sign" that the case would be picked up and receive a favorable ruling.

"But how SCOTUS' timing works against a running clock in Trump's case -- this is one of 4 charges in Jack Smith's indictment -- is unknown," she said. "One takeaway is this is not encouraging news for either DOJ or Smith."

A similar assessment came from former federal prosecutor Neama Rahmani, who told Newsweek, "If the Supreme Court reverses the rioters' convictions, the logic would also apply to Trump, so he would be chipping away at some of Smith's charges."

Roger Parlof, the senior editor of the left-leaning Lawfare outlet, said in a social media post that the relisting was "Unwelcome but not catastrophic news for DOJ" in terms of the hundreds of Jan. 6 cases that the disputed statute had been included in.

Could result in a delay of Trump's federal election trial next year

One particularly notable thing in this development was alluded to by Julie Kelly, in that the Supreme Court's timing here seemingly serves to throw a wrench into Special Counsel Smith's overt efforts to keep a fast pace in his prosecution of former President Trump and bring him to trial early next year ahead of the 2024 election.

Given that the Supreme Court typically takes months to render a decision after receiving briefs and hearing oral arguments, it is unlikely that a ruling will be issued until early summer, well after the scheduled March 2024 trial start for Trump that Smith has adamantly attempted to adhere to.

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