US Supreme Court limits scope of obstruction statute in January 6 Capitol riot case News
US Supreme Court limits scope of obstruction statute in January 6 Capitol riot case

In a closely watched decision stemming from the January 6, 2021, Capitol riot, the US Supreme Court ruled on Friday that the government must prove a defendant impaired or attempted to impair the availability or integrity of evidence to be convicted under a key obstruction statute.

On January 6, 2021, a crowd of supporters of then-President Donald Trump gathered outside the US Capitol while Congress convened in a joint session to certify the 2020 Presidential election results in favor of Joe Biden. Amid escalating tensions, some protesters breached the Capitol, breaking windows and clashing with law enforcement, which resulted in a significant delay in the certification process. The events raised widespread concerns about the security of democratic processes in the United States.

The case, Fischer v. United States, centered on Joseph Fischer, who was charged under Section 1512(c)(2) of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act for allegedly obstructing Congress’ certification of the 2020 presidential election. Fischer argued the statute only covered actions aimed at evidence impairment, not broader obstructive conduct. The preceding section of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, 1512(c)(1) establishes criminal liability for specific actions such as altering, destroying, or concealing records intending to obstruct official proceedings. Subsection 1512(c)(2) broadens this prohibition to anyone who “otherwise obstructs, influences, or impedes any official proceeding, or attempts to do so.”The Supreme Court was asked to weigh in on whether the expansive language of 1512(c)(2) should be tempered by the specific acts listed in 1512(c)(2).

The majority opinion, authored by Chief Justice John Roberts, narrowed the interpretation of Section 1512(c)(2), emphasizing its linkage to the preceding subsection. In assessing the meaning of “otherwise” in (c)(2), the court focused on two legal principles:noscitur a sociis, the principle that a word is “given more precise content by the neighboring words with which it is associated,” andejusdem generis, “a general or collective term at the end of a list of specific items is typically controlled and defined by reference to those specific items that precede it.” Combined, the court reasoned that these principles show that Congress generally would not introduce a general term if doing so would render the text preceding it meaningless.
On this basis, the court reasoned:
Under these principles, the ‘otherwise’ provision of §1512(c)(2) is limited by the list of specific criminal violations that precede it in (c)(1). If, as the Government asserts, (c)(2) covers all forms of obstructive con- duct beyond §1512(c)(1)’s focus on evidence impairment, Congress would have had little reason to provide any specific examples at all. And the sweep of subsection (c)(2) would swallow (c)(1), leaving that narrower provision with no work to do.
In a dissenting opinion, Justice Amy Coney Barrett, joined by Justices Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor, argued that the majority improperly interpreted the law, stating “By textually narrowing [subsection 1512(c)(2)], the Court has failed to respect the prerogatives of the political branches,” explaining that once Congress establishes the outer limits of liability, the Executive Branch can choose which cases to prosecute within those boundaries.
The decision is expected to have significant implications for future prosecutions related to obstruction of justice, particularly in high-profile cases involving political uprisings. It aligns with the Court’s historical approach of limiting statutory interpretations to prevent overly broad criminalization of conduct not intended by Congress.

The ruling vacates an earlier decision by the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, which had ruled in favor of a broader interpretation of Section 1512(c)(2).