SCOTUS Takes Up January 6 Obstruction Challenge — But with Unknown Scope

Today, SCOTUS granted cert to one of the initial challenges to 18 USC 1512(c)(2), that of Joseph Fischer.

Depending on what they do with the appeal, the review could have significant effect on all the January 6 cases charging obstruction — over 300 defendants so far, including Trump.

But no one knows how broadly they will be reviewing this appeal.

On its face, the only thing being appealed in Fischer is whether this statute requires document tampering.

Did the D.C. Circuit err in construing 18 U.S.C. § 1512(c) (“Witness, Victim, or Informant Tampering”), which prohibits obstruction of congressional inquiries and investigations, to include acts unrelated to investigations and evidence?

If SCOTUS upheld the DC Circuit opinion (and all the underlying District opinions), nothing would change. If it overturned the DC Circuit opinion, then hundreds of cases of rioters would be thrown out.

Remember that defendants have always likened the January 6 attack with the interruption by protestors of Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearing (there are significant differences, starting with the fact that all the protestors who disrupted Kavanaugh’s hearing were in the building legally). So I wouldn’t even rule out some set of Republicans rejecting this application on those grounds.

But it’s not clear that would affect the charges against Trump. That’s because Trump’s obstruction does involve document tampering: the forged elector certificates.

It’s possible, though, that SCOTUS will also review a more contentious issue: the definition of “corrupt purpose” in the statute. Fischer addresses that deeper in the petition.

While some courts have limited Section 1512(c)(2)’s scope by a particular definition of the critical mens rea element—“corruptly”—they have not defined it uniformly. See Miller, 605 F. Supp. 3d at 70 n.3. And the D.C. Circuit’s lead opinion declined to define it all, even while stating that “corrupt intent” limited Section 1512(c)(2)’s reach. Compare Pet. App. 17a-18a with Pet. App. 20a. The lead opinion nonetheless acknowledged three potential definitions:

1. Corruptly means conduct that is “wrongful, immoral, depraved, or evil.” Pet. App. at 18a (quoting Arthur Anderson LLP, 544 U.S. at 705, discussing 18 U.S.C. § 1512(b)).

2. Undertaken with a “corrupt purpose or through independently corrupt means, or both.” Pet. App. 18a-19a (quoting United States v. Sandlin, 575 F. Supp. 3d 16, 30 (D.D.C. 2021) (citing United States v. North, 910 F.2d 843, 942-43 (D.C. Cir. 1990) (Silberman, J., concurring and dissenting in part)).

3. Conduct that involves “voluntarily and intentionally [acting] to bring about either an unlawful result or a lawful result by some unlawful method, with a hope or expectation of either financial gain or other benefit to oneself or a benefit of another person.” Pet. App. 19a (quoting Aguilar, 515 U.S. at 616-17) (Scalia, J., concurring).

Here, SCOTUS could adopt the more restrictive definition of corrupt benefit, option 3.

In that case, it’s not clear what would happen with the crime scene defendants: at the DC Circuit, Justin Walker argued that Trump supporters might have obtained a corrupt purpose if Trump were unlawfully retained.

But for Trump, there’s no question: He was attempting to retain one of the most valuable jobs in the world through unlawful means.

All of which is to say, SCOTUS’ decision to review the case is huge — though not entirely unexpected.

But we won’t know what to make of the review for some time.

Update: I had been anxiously waiting to see what Steve Vladeck had to say about this. He notes that SCOTUS took Fischer but not Miller and Alam, which had been joined to it.

All three defendants filed cert. petitions challenging the D.C. Circuit’s decision. The Department of Justice filed a single, consolidated brief in opposition—and the Court’s website used to reflect that the three cases had been “vided” (meaning that they were being considered alongside each other). Thus, it’s really strange that the Court granted Fischer, but not Lang and Miller. (And then quietly removed the notation from Fischer’s docket page that the case was tied to Lang and Miller.) Yes, the Court often holds parallel cases for a lead case, but not after both the court of appeals and the government had already consolidated them.

Part of why it’s weird is because all three petitions raise the question presented in Fischer—the actus reus question. The other two petitions also raise the mens rea question (and Fischer does not), but if the Court was interested in answering the actus reus question in general (and only the actus reus question), it could easily have granted all three petitions only on that question.

Otherwise, the only difference I can readily discern between Fischer and the other two cases is that Fischer entered the Capitol later on January 6 (after the Joint Session recessed). But it’s hard to believe that the Court is intervening in an interlocutory posture (remember, the cases have not yet gone to trial) because it wants to draw a temporal distinction among which January 6 rioters can and can’t be prosecuted under 1512(c)(2).

All of this is to say that, if the Court really was interested in narrowing the scope of 1512(c)(2) to align with Judge Katsas’s dissent in Fischer, I don’t get why the Court would sever cases that had hitherto been consolidated.


The Effort by Accused Mobsters to End Run the DC Circuit on “Corruptly”

Now that Trump has been charged with it, legal commentators have finally discovered that DOJ has been applying obstruction — 18 USC 1512(c)(2) — to January 6.

For example, in a post yesterday, Jay Kuo noted that over the two and a half years that DOJ has been charging January 6 defendants with obstruction, its application to January 6 as an official proceeding has been affirmed and the meaning of “corruptly” is getting closer to definition.

Seen from a broad perspective, the over 1,000 January 6 cases filed by the Justice Department against the rioters, insurrectionists and seditious conspirators have now yielded important precedents that can be applied to the charges and the case against Donald J. Trump. Without this important groundwork, there would be considerably more legal risks in the application of two of the primary counts in the indictment: obstruction or attempted obstruction of an official proceeding, and conspiracy to obstruct an official proceeding.

Those legal risks would have certainly been targeted and appealed by Trump’s attorneys, putting a very big question mark over the finality of any conviction. As things stand, there remains some legal uncertainty—such as which jury instruction for “corruptly” to apply here—but they likely will be resolved, perhaps even by the Supreme Court, long before the jury meets to deliberate Trump’s guilt.

And for all that legwork by Garland and his Department of Justice, forging a clear legal path to prosecute Trump under the obstruction statute, I am both grateful and impressed.

Kuo correctly notes that the most likely place we’ll get such a definition is in Thomas Robertson’s appeal, which was heard on May 11. Given the hearing, it seems likely that the DC Circuit will adopt a standard on “corruptly” that would include, at least, either the “otherwise illegal” standard that Dabney Friedrich has adopted or the corrupt benefit that Justin Walker addressed in Fischer. Under either standard, obstruction should apply to Trump more neatly than it does many of the other January 6 defendants who’ve been charged under the statute.

But as Roger Parloff has noted, there is one other possibility.

Shortly after the other DC Circuit decision — captioned after Joseph Fischer, but including appeals from Jake Lang and Garret Miller, all of whom had had their obstruction charge rejected by Carl Nichols — Norm Pattis (who also represents Joe Biggs and Owen Shroyer and, if he ever gets charged, Alex Jones) and Steven Metcalf (who also represents Dominic Pezzola) filed an appeal for Lang. That appeal was not closely focused or in my NAL opinion, all that well crafted. It did not focus on the definition of “corruptly.”

Then, on August 1 — hours before Trump was charged with obstruction — Nick Smith (who largely crafted these challenges to 1512 and also represents Ethan Nordean) filed a cert petition for Miller.

Even though “corruptly” wasn’t the central holding in the Fischer decision, Smith included it as one of the questions presented here.

Whether § 1512(c)’s “corruptly” element requires proof that the defendant acted with the intent to obtain an unlawful benefit, or whether it merely requires proof that the defendant acted with an improper or wrongful purpose or through unlawful means.

And he cited NYT’s coverage of the use of obstruction as part of his explanation for the import of this appeal.

Elevating the national political salience of the issues raised here, it appears that the former president of the United States, and candidate in the 2024 presidential election, will be charged under the same Section 1512(c) (2) theory of liability that the government has filed against Petitioner and hundreds of others. Obstruction Law Cited by Prosecutors in Trump Case Has Drawn Challenges, N.Y.Times, July 20, 2023, available at: https:// obstruction-charge.html.

He made no mention of the pending Robertson decision.

His justification for why Miller’s appeal provides little reason to consider the definition of “corruptly” when it is not ripe below — to say nothing of why a third defendant before Carl Nichols also accused of assault makes a sound vehicle for testing a statute that is more troubling with defendants who did not engage in violence on the day of the attack. Instead, Smith suggests that Miller’s guilty plea on the assault charges brackets that issue.

Miller’s case presents a clean vehicle to address the questions presented. Miller’s case is usefully contrasted with that of Petitioner Edward Lang (No. 23-32).

The government alleges that Lang entered the Capitol’s Lower West Terrace tunnel where, according to the government, “some of the most violent attacks on police officers occurred.” Dkt. 1958170 at 24. The government further alleges: “Until approximately 5 p.m., Lang pushed, kicked, and punched officers, at times using a bar or a stolen riot shield.” Id. In an interview on January 7, 2021, Lang described how he “had a gas mask on for the first two, three hours” as he was “fighting them face to face” as part of “a mission to have the Capitol building” and “stop this presidential election from being stolen.” Id. According to Lang: “It was war. This was no protest.” Id.

While Miller’s conduct in entering the Capitol and pushing on police lines was wrong, he has accepted responsibility for his actions by pleading guilty to every valid offense with which he was charged—except the charge under Section 1512(c)(2). The charges to which Milled pled guilty already perfectly encompass all his misconduct that day. Thus, Miller’s case captures the essential point that the novel obstruction charge does not penalize any unique criminal conduct or intent.

Ultimately, both these appeals are misleading, because they suggest these appeals are about protesting. None of the three can claim to be only protesting; all three are charged with — and Miller pled guilty to — assault (though Lang, who has not yet been found guilty, claims he was engaged in self defense).

But that doesn’t rule out that a SCOTUS dominated by right wingers like Clarence Thomas, for whom Nichols, the lone DC District holdout on this application of obstruction, once clerked, may choose to weigh in now rather than waiting for the DC Circuit’s decision to ripen the issue.

This is the kind of thing that legal commentators could be productively focused on, because it is designed to affect the case against Trump.

Update: Mistakenly referred to Lang as Alam.

DC Circuit Upholds 18 USC 1512(c)(2), Sort Of

This passage from Judge Justin Walker’s concurring opinion in the DC Circuit’s ruling upholding the application of 18 USC 1512(c)(2) to three defendants accused of assaulting cops on January 6 may be the most important language, until further litigation sorts out the rest.

5 The dissenting opinion says a defendant can act “corruptly” only if the benefit he intends to procure is a “financial, professional, or exculpatory advantage.” Dissenting Op. 35. I am not so sure. Cf. United States v. Townsend, 630 F.3d 1003, 1010-11 (11th Cir. 2011); United States v. Girard, 601 F.2d 69, 70 (2d Cir. 1979); Trushin v. State, 425 So.2d 1126, 1130-32 (Fla. 1982). Besides, this case may involve a professional benefit. The Defendants’ conduct may have been an attempt to help Donald Trump unlawfully secure a professional advantage — the presidency. Like the clerkship that Samuel Vaughan corruptly sought hundreds of years ago, the presidency is a coveted professional position. See Vaughan (1769) 98 Eng. Rep. at 308-10; but see Telegram from William T. Sherman to Republican National Convention (1884) (“I will not accept if nominated, and will not serve if elected.”).

True, the Defendants were allegedly trying to secure the presidency for Donald Trump, not for themselves or their close associates. But the beneficiary of an unlawful benefit need not be the defendant or his friends. Few would doubt that a defendant could be convicted of corruptly bribing a presidential elector if he paid the elector to cast a vote in favor of a preferred candidate — even if the defendant had never met the candidate and was not associated with him. See Oral Arg. Tr. 18-19, Chiafalo v. Washington, 140 S. Ct. 2316 (2020) (discussing the fear that electoral college voters might one day be bribed).


[I]t might be enough for the Government to prove that a defendant used illegal means (like assaulting police officers) with the intent to procure a benefit (the presidency) for another person (Donald Trump). * *

I most recently wrote about this appeal here (which links to my past coverage). DOJ has charged over 300 people with obstructing the vote certification on January 6. All but one judge — former Clarence Thomas clerk Carl Nichols — upheld the application. Judge Nichols said that the application of 1512 to these defendants, who allegedly engaged in significant assaults as part of their actions on January 6, had to involve a documentary component, like destroying a document.

Walker joined Florence Pan’s majority opinion upholding the obstruction statute with Garret Miller, Joseph Fischer, and Jake Lang. The decision before the court was primarily whether obstruction required a documentary aspect, and Pan and Walker agreed it did not, though at the hearing, Walker and Greg Katsas made it clear they were interested in limiting the “corrupt purpose” requirement of the statue.

That’s where Walker disagreed with Pan: whether the “corrupt purpose” part of 1512 must involve some kind of personal corruption or may be broader. He argues here — in a part of the opinion that Greg Katsas did not join — that it must.

But he interpreted his own definition requiring some personal corruption to extend to those, like the appellees, who committed crimes in service of keeping Trump in office.

I’m not sure his adoption of personal corruption to assault in the service of election theft is so obvious (his opinion makes it sound like he’s not sure either).

But as written, his language would extend to virtually all the people already charged with obstruction.

This will be further litigated. But given that this is the starting place, unless SCOTUS does something remarkable, it likely means obstruction will be upheld for all those currently charged and could be used with Trump and all his aides who were more clearly working for a corrupt purpose.

[Fixed appellee appellant — because I forgot the defendants won before Nichols]

Update: Earlier this week, I did a podcast with Joshua Holland. I said there were a number of things that Jack Smith might wait on before charging Trump. One of those was this appeal.

Update: Added a bit more description the Nichols’ holding that was overturned.

Update: Both Nick Smith (for Ethan Nordean and the guy who argued before the DC Circuit) and Carmen Hernandez (for Zach Rehl) are using the opinion to disrupt the Proud Boy trial, with Hernandez making a much more expansive ask.

They argue that because Walker would not have joined Pan’s majority opinion on the documents issue without a more narrow reading of “corruptly” than she adopted, Tim Kelly has to apply Walker’s standard in the Proud Boy case. That’s why I noted that Walker had little problem applying his “corruptly” standard to the defendants before him: if it can apply to guys who weren’t called out by the President in advance of playing a key role in an assault on the Capitol, then it surely could apply to guys accused of doing just that.

In her majority, Pan noted that Thomas Robertson’s appeal includes a challenge to the “corruptly” language used to convict him on obstruction, but this bid by the Proud Boys may hasten DOJ’s request for some other resolution.