Here is some of the legal news making the headlines this week:

The Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a case challenging the obstruction of an official proceeding charge brought against hundreds of people charged for their involvement in the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol. 

  • At issue in the case, Fischer v. United States, is whether the obstruction statute prosecutors used to charge many January 6 rioters, 18 U.S.C. § 1512(c)(2), criminalizes efforts to interfere with all congressional proceedings or only criminalizes efforts to tamper with evidence that is part of a congressional investigation. The law is a provision of the 2002 Sarbanes-Oxley Act and makes it a crime to “obstruct[], influence[], or impede[] any official proceeding, or attempt[] to do so.” It is a felony punishable by up to 20 years in prison. Prosecutors have argued that the January 6 rioters interfered with Congress’s counting of the Electoral College votes. Joseph Fischer, the criminal defendant, was charged with seven counts for his conduct on January 6, including assault of a police officer, disorderly conduct in the Capitol Building, and the obstruction charge.
  • During oral arguments, the Court’s conservative bloc questioned whether prosecutors interpreted the obstruction statute too broadly when applying it to January 6 rioters. Justice Neil Gorsuch asked, “Would a sit-in that disrupts a trial or access to a federal courthouse qualify? Would a heckler in today’s audience qualify, or at the State of the Union address? Would pulling a fire alarm before a vote qualify for 20 years in federal prison?” Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, one of the Court’s liberal justices, also questioned whether the statute should apply to January 6, pointing out that “There was nothing as far as I can tell in the enactment history as it was recorded that suggests that Congress was thinking about obstruction more generally.”
  • The Court’s two other liberal justices, Justice Elena Kagan and Justice Sonia Sotomayor, disagreed. Kagan argued the statute’s drafters made clear that it should not only apply to evidence tampering. Kagan said, “There are…multiple ways in which the drafters of [the statute] could have made it clear that they intended [the statute] to…operate only in the sphere of evidence spoliation. But it doesn’t do that.” Sotomayor agreed, saying, “We’ve never had a situation before where there’s been a situation like this with people attempting to stop a proceeding violently.” A decision in the case is expected this summer.

In his final Supreme Court brief before oral arguments, former President Donald Trump urged the justices to grant him absolute immunity from criminal prosecution for actions taken while president.

  • Next Thursday, the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in Trump’s effort to dismiss the federal election subversion prosecution brought by special counsel Jack Smith. Trump elevated this challenge to the Supreme Court after district and appellate courts ruled against him. The D.C. Circuit Court panel unanimously held, “The Executive Branch’s interest in upholding Presidential elections and vesting power in a new President under the Constitution and the voters’ interest in democratically selecting their President…compel the conclusion that former President Trump is not immune from prosecution under the Indictment.”
  • In Trump’s latest brief, he wrote that the threat of criminal prosecution would enable a “President’s opponents [to] wield that threat as a cudgel throughout his tenure in office, effectively blackmailing him with ‘personal vulnerability’ and distorting the most sensitive Presidential decisions.”
  • In his brief, special counsel Jack Smith took the opposite stance, writing, “The President’s constitutional duty to take care that the laws be faithfully executed does not entail a general right to violate them.” Smith also rebutted Trump’s claim that bringing criminal charges against a former president is unprecedented, arguing that “The absence of any prosecutions of former Presidents until this case does not reflect the understanding that Presidents are immune from criminal liability; it instead underscores the unprecedented nature of petitioner’s alleged conduct.”

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