Court to weigh in on scope of law used in Jan. 6 prosecutions

Two days after Special Counsel Jack Smith asked the justices to decide quickly whether former President Donald Trump can face criminal charges for conspiring to overturn the results of the 2020 elections, the Supreme Court agreed to hear a case that could affect the charges against Trump even if the court ultimately rules that he is not immune from prosecution. The justices on Wednesday agreed to weigh in on the use of a federal law – also at issue in Trump’s case – that makes it a crime to “corruptly” obstruct congressional inquiries and investigations to prosecute participants in the Jan. 6 attacks on the U.S. Capitol.

The announcement that the justices would hear argument in Fischer v. United States came on a list of orders released on Wednesday morning. (The grant of review in two cases involving access to the pill used in medication abortions is covered separately.)

The defendant in the case, Joseph Fischer, says he was only briefly inside the Capitol on Jan. 6 but was charged with (among other things) assaulting a police officer, disorderly conduct in the Capitol, and obstruction of a congressional proceeding.

Fischer sought to have the charge at the center of his Supreme Court case dismissed, and U.S. District Judge Carl Nichols agreed. He reasoned that the law, which was enacted in the wake of the Enron collapse, was only intended to apply to evidence tampering that obstructs an official proceeding.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit reversed and reinstated the charges against Fischer (as well as those against two other men). It ruled that “[u]nder the most natural reading of the statute,” the law “applies to all forms of corrupt obstruction of an official proceeding, other than the conduct that is already covered by” the evidence-tampering provision.

In a dissenting opinion, Judge Gregory Katsas countered that the government’s interpretation of the law would render it “both improbably broad and unconstitutional in many of its applications.”

Fischer came to the Supreme Court in September, asking the justices to hear his appeal, which they agreed to do on Wednesday.

The justices also agreed to review a ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit in favor of Danny Lee Jones, who was sentenced to death for the murders of Robert Weaver and Weaver’s seven-year-old daughter, Tisha. A federal district court in Arizona rejected Jones’s claims that his lawyer had provided inadequate assistance, but a federal appeals court in California reversed that decision. Over two dissents joined by 10 judges in total, the full court declined to rehear the case.

The state came to the Supreme Court in the spring, asking the justices to summarily – that is, without additional briefing or oral argument – reverse the 9th Circuit’s ruling. It argued that the lower court had misapplied the Supreme Court’s 1984 decision in Strickland v. Washington, which sets out the test to determine whether a lawyer’s performance was so inadequate that it violated the Constitution.

After considering the case at every conference since late September (and requesting the record from the lower court, which often suggests either that the court is drafting a summary reversal or that one or more justices is writing a dissent or a statement regarding the court’s decision not to hear the case), the justices finally announced on Wednesday that they would hold briefing and oral argument on the merits in the case.

Wednesday’s other grants included:

  • Chiaverini v. City of Napoleon – Whether a claim for malicious prosecution can proceed for a baseless criminal charge, even if there was probable cause for prosecutors to bring other criminal charges
  • Snyder v. United States – Whether federal bribery laws make it a crime to accept “gratuities” – that is, payment for something a government official has already done, without any prior agreement to take those actions in exchange for payment
  • Connelly v. United States – Whether the proceeds of a life-insurance policy taken out by a closely held corporation on a shareholder in order to facilitate the redemption of the shareholder’s stock should be considered a corporate asset when calculating the value of the shareholder’s shares for purposes of the federal estate tax

Wednesday’s grants are likely to be the last regularly scheduled grants of 2023. The justices are slated to meet again for another private conference on Friday, Jan. 5, 2024.

 

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