Nichols wrote in a 29-page opinion that federal prosecutors misinterpreted a “catch-all” provision passed by Congress when it revised a longstanding obstruction of justice law under the Sarbanes-Oxley Corporate Responsibility Act of 2002.
The provision covers “anyone by corruption. . . obstructs, influences or interferes with any official process”. But Nichols ruled that the passage “must be construed as limited by [the preceding] paragraph” – requiring that a defendant “took any action with respect to a document, record or other thing in order to obstruct, obstruct or corruptly influence an official proceeding “. Raiding the Capitol and forcing lawmakers to flee or falsely attempting to stop the vote count does not apply to this interpretation, the judge said.
Nichols dismissed 1 of 12 charges pending against Garret A. Miller, a North Texas man who allegedly bragged about storming the Capitol and threatening lawmakers and police on social media. He is accused of declaring “Assassinate AOC” in response to a Tweeter by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (DN.Y.) calling for the impeachment of President Donald Trump.
Nichols’ reasoning will likely apply to the cases of at least seven other defendants before him facing the same pending charge. Another, Beverly Hills spa owner Gina Bisignano, is awaiting sentencing after pleading guilty under a deal with prosecutors.
Other U.S. trial judges in Washington are not bound by the ruling by Nichols, a Trump appointee in 2019 who served as the Justice Department’s senior civil division officer under President George W. Bush and clerk for Associate Justice of the Supreme Court Clarence Thomas. At least seven judges have already rejected the same defense request. Given the new law enforcement and the high stakes of the Jan. 6 investigation, some government appeal could send the matter to the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia and possibly to the Court. Supreme Court of the United States, legal experts have said.
Other defendants, however, may be reluctant to make plea deals by admitting the charge, defense attorneys said, even though the case of the first Jan. 6 defendant to stand trial went to a jury on Tuesday, with Guy Wesley Reffitt faces that number among five felony charges.
The decision also has wider implications. Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) has suggested that Trump could be charged with obstruction of due process, as could the House select committee investigating the events of Jan. 6 — although in Trump’s case, allegedly regarding the counting of electoral votes.
Miller’s attorneys, Camille Wagner of Washington and Clinton Broden of Dallas, did not immediately respond to a request for comment, nor did a spokesperson for the DC U.S. Attorney’s Office, which oversees prosecutions for violations of the Capitol.
In an indictment and court documents, prosecutors say Miller, 35, predicted the likelihood of violence on Jan. 6, 2021. Authorities also accuse him of urging police to enter the Capitol, d making various incriminating statements and posting videos and photos taken inside. building.
Miller pleaded not guilty. Nichols said he denied a defense motion claiming that Miller had been the victim of selective government prosecution and asking for his release from prison pending trial, where he has been held since his arrest on January 20, 2021 in Richardson, Australia. Texas.
Defendants in more than a dozen cases claim the joint session of the House and Senate held Jan. 6 is not considered official congressional procedure. They also argue that the law is unconstitutionally vague because it fails to clearly inform individuals of the difference between obstruction or “corrupt” influence of Congress and intrusion, parade, or disorderly conduct in the Capitol. Defendants also said it did not cover alleged unlawful actions by individuals, among others.
By Monday, all of the at least seven justices who have ruled so far have accepted Justice Department arguments that Congress had provided a broad “catch-all” provision for obstruction after the revelation of a Massive corporate fraud in the early 2000s wiped out hundreds of billions of dollars in shareholder value, triggered by the collapse of Enron and the revelation that its external auditor, accounting giant Arthur Andersen, systematically destroyed documents potentially incriminating.
Congress’ interest in passing such blanket clauses is to cover “issues that are not specifically contemplated” because lawmakers “don’t know what inventive criminal minds” might come up with in the future, the assistant U.S. attorney said. Jeffrey S. Nestler during the hearing on Wednesday.
But some legal scholars have long debated whether the expansion applies only to financial fraud or traditional crimes of obstruction of justice such as destruction of documents.
In 2015, the Supreme Court rejected a sweeping reading of a related law, overturning the conviction of a Florida fisherman who destroyed a red grouper under 20 inches to embarrass US wildlife inspectors. The court ruled that when Congress prohibited the destruction of any “tangible object,” that meant documentary evidence, not fish—a case cited by Nichols.
“Congress faced a very specific loophole: The criminal laws then in effect prohibited provoking or inciting another person to destroy documents, but did not prohibit doing it yourself,” Nichols said. , referring to the actions of Arthur Anderson. . By passing this part of the law, Congress has come full circle, but “nothing in legislative history suggests a broader goal than that.”
Nichols said prosecutors never charged Miller with falsifying records and dismissed the obstruction charge without prejudice, meaning the government could charge him if more evidence emerges.