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Supreme Court: Charges against Trump and Jan. 6 rioters are at stake

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Supreme Court questioned Tuesday whether federal prosecutors went too far in bringing obstruction charges against hundreds of participants in the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the Capitol. But it was unclear how the justices would rule in a case that could also affect the prosecution of the former president. Donald Trump, who faces the same accusations for his efforts to overturn his 2020 election defeat.

The judges heard arguments on the accusation of obstruction of an official proceeding in the case of Joseph Fischer, a former Pennsylvania police officer who was indicted for his role in disrupting Congress’s certification of Joe Biden’s victory in the 2020 presidential election against Trump. Fischer is one of 330 people facing the charge, which stems from a law passed in the wake of the Enron financial scandal more than two decades ago to combat the destruction of documents.

Trump faces two charges in a separate case brought by special counsel Jack Smith in Washington, this decision could be overturned by a favorable decision from the highest court in the country. Next week, the justices will hear arguments on whether the former president and presumptive candidate for the 2024 Republican nomination has “absolute immunity” from prosecution in the case, a proposition that has until has now been rejected by two lower courts.

Smith separately argued in the immunity case that the obstruction charges against Trump stand regardless of how the court rules Fischer’s case. The first former US president to be indicted, Trump is on trial on hush money charges in New York and has also been charged with election interference in Georgia and mishandling classified documents in Florida.

After more than 90 minutes of arguments, it was unclear where the court would end up in Fischer’s case. Conservative Justices Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch appeared most likely to side with Fischer, while liberal Justices Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor appeared more sympathetic to the Justice Department’s position.

Justices Amy Coney Barrett and Ketanji Brown Jackson, a former federal public defender, expressed interest in a more intermediate outcome that could make it more difficult, but not impossible, for prosecutors to pursue the obstruction charge.

Some conservative justices said the law was so broad that it could be used even against peaceful protests and also questioned why the Justice Department had not filed charges under the provision during other violent protests. .

“There were numerous violent demonstrations which disrupted the proceedings,” said Justice Clarence Thomas. He was back on the bench Tuesday after an unexplained one-day absence.

FILE – Donald Trump supporters take part in a rally in Washington, January 6, 2021. The Supreme Court will hear arguments Tuesday April 16, 2024 on the charge of obstructing an official proceeding brought against 330 people, according to the Department of Defense. Justice.  The accusation refers to the disruption of Congress' certification of Joe Biden's 2020 presidential election victory over former President Trump.  Trump faces two obstruction charges.  Next week, judges will consider whether Trump can be prosecuted for his efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 election. (AP Photo/John Minchillo, file)

Donald Trump supporters take part in a rally in Washington, January 6, 2021. (AP Photo/John Minchillo, File)

Gorsuch appeared to rely on actual events when he asked Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar whether people could be charged with obstructing an official proceeding if they rose up in protest in the courtroom, heckling the president during of the State of the Union or set off a fire alarm in the courtroom. The Capitol complex will delay a vote in Congress.

Alito, suggesting that the government’s reading of the law is too broad, asked whether the charge could be applied to people who disrupted the day’s hearing by shouting “Keep the January 6 insurrectionists in jail or “Free them.” patriots of January 6.”

He was quick to add: “What happened on January 6 was very, very serious and I don’t equate it with that.”

The high court case focuses on whether the anti-obstruction provision of a law passed in 2002 in response to the financial scandal that brought down Enron Corp. can be used against the January 6 defendants.

Lawyers for Fischer, the former North Cornwall Township police officer, argue the provision was intended to fill a loophole in criminal law and discourage the destruction of records in response to an investigation. Until the Capitol riot, attorney Jeffrey Green told the court on Fischer’s behalf, the provision “had never been used to prosecute anything other than tampering with evidence.”

Fischer “was not part of the mob” that forced lawmakers to flee the House and Senate chambers, Green wrote in court papers, noting that he entered the Capitol after Congress recessed. The weight of the crowd pushed Fischer into a line of police officers inside, Green wrote.

FILE - President Donald Trump speaks during a rally in Washington on January 6, 2021. The Supreme Court will hear arguments Tuesday, April 16, 2024 on the charge of obstructing an official proceeding that was brought against 330 people, according to the Department of Justice.  The accusation refers to the disruption of Congress' certification of Joe Biden's 2020 presidential election victory over former President Trump.  Trump faces two obstruction charges.  Next week, judges will consider whether Trump can be prosecuted for his efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 election. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, file)

President Donald Trump speaks at a rally in Washington on January 6, 2021. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File)

But Prelogar, one of the administration’s top Supreme Court lawyers, said the other side is reading the law too narrowly, arguing that it serves as a “classic catch-all” designed to deal with obstructing an official proceeding. She said Fischer’s actions before, during and after Jan. 6 demonstrated that he intended to prevent Congress from doing its job of certifying the election results.

“He had said before January 6 that he was ready to storm the Capitol, ready to use violence, that he wanted to intimidate Congress,” Prelogar said. “He said they couldn’t vote if they couldn’t breathe. And then he went to the Capitol on January 6 with that intention in mind and took action, including assaulting a law enforcement officer.

The obstruction charge is one of the most widely used criminal charges in the massive federal prosecutions that followed the violent insurrection. That sentence carries a maximum prison term of 20 years, but Prelogar said the average sentence imposed so far is about two years.

About 170 Jan. 6 defendants were convicted of obstructing or conspiring to obstruct the Jan. 6 joint session of Congress, including the leaders of two far-right extremist groups, the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers. A number of defendants had their sentencing postponed until judges ruled on the matter.

Some rioters have even been granted early release from prison while the appeal is pending, fearing they will serve longer sentences than they should if the Supreme Court rules against the Justice Department. They understand Kevin Seefried, a Delaware man who threatened a black police officer with a flagpole attached to a Confederate battle flag as he stormed the Capitol. Seefried was sentenced last year to three years in prison, but a judge recently ordered that he be released after a year in prison pending the Supreme Court’s decision.

Most lower court judges who ruled upheld the charge. Among them, U.S. District Judge Dabney Friedrich, a Trump appointee, wrote that “laws often go beyond the primary evil that animated them.”

But U.S. District Judge Carl Nichols, another Trump appointee, dismissed the charges against Fischer and two other defendants, writing that prosecutors had gone too far. A divided panel of the federal appeals court in Washington reinstated the charge before the Supreme Court agreed to take up the case.

More than 1,350 people have been charged with federal crimes related to the Capitol riots. About 1,000 of them pleaded guilty or were found guilty by a jury or judge after a trial.

A decision is expected by the end of June.

___

Associated Press writers Alanna Durkin Richer in Washington and Michael Kunzelman in Silver Spring, Maryland, contributed to this report.

News Source : apnews.com
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