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Supreme Court limits a legal tool the DOJ has used to prosecute Jan. 6 defendants

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

The Supreme Court has put new limits on a legal tool the Justice Department has used to prosecute people who rioted at the U.S. Capitol. The justices narrowed an obstruction law that prosecutors have deployed against some of the most violent January 6 defendants. NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson has been following these cases and joins me now. Hey, Carrie.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Hey there.

DETROW: What exactly did the Supreme Court majority do today?

JOHNSON: Well, the court basically narrowed the way prosecutors can use this obstruction law. Congress passed the law after the Enron scandal, after they realized it was a crime to persuade people to destroy documents but not to destroy documents yourself. So they made it a crime to obstruct an official proceeding, and they made it punishable by 20 years in prison - a long time.

After the Capitol riot, prosecutors turned to this legal tool in some of the most serious cases, about 350 cases. But the Supreme Court majority today said DOJ was sweeping way too broadly and that to charge people with violating this law, prosecutors would need to show someone had somehow tampered with documents or records or evidence.

DETROW: This is kind of an interesting lineup of justices, right? You had Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, a Biden appointee, siding with the rioters. Then you had Justice Amy Coney Barrett, a Trump appointee, writing a dissent. What did you make of that?

JOHNSON: A really unusual lineup. Justice Jackson did vote with the majority. She wrote to say January 6 had inflicted a deep wound on the nation but that this case was about something much more narrow - just the scope of this law. And Amy Coney Barrett, the Trump appointee, wrote a very strong dissent. She said prosecutors basically had an open-and-shut case against this defendant, Joseph Fischer, a former police officer.

She wrote that using force against someone with the intent to prevent them from turning over a record in an official proceeding is actually obstructing the proceeding. And Fischer faces six other charges, including assaulting police at the Capitol and disorderly conduct. The case against him is now going to go back to the Appeals Court, which needs to figure out how to apply the standard the Supreme Court has set.

DETROW: And you mentioned about 350 cases. What is the practical effect of this decision on these hundreds of other people charged in connection with what happened on January 6?

JOHNSON: I spoke with Donald Sherman at Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington about that effort to hold rioters accountable. Here's what he said.

DONALD SHERMAN: It's clear that this has weakened one statutory provision that the Department of Justice has used to hold J6 defendants accountable, but it's by no means the only tool that they've used.

JOHNSON: In fact, the U.S. Attorney Matthew Graves says this decision will touch only a tiny sliver of cases. So far, prosecutors have charged more than 1,400 people in this January 6 probe. More than 80% of them never faced this obstruction charge. A bunch of defendants were charged and pleaded guilty or convicted somehow, but they were also convicted of other felony offenses.

Right now the biggest impact is going to be on about 50 people who were convicted and sentenced only on this one felony, and about 27 of them are behind bars right now. So they're expected to be released, and others may have to be sentenced again. But for some of the most prominent defendants, like the leaders of the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers, they got convicted of many other serious crimes, so the impact on their cases might not be as big.

DETROW: Let's talk about one other January 6 defendant, and that's former president Donald Trump - any sense of how this decision could affect his federal case?

JOHNSON: Trump's charged with four crimes in that D.C. case, two related to this obstruction statute. Remember; the Supreme Court majority narrowed this law to things that involve documents. But in Trump's case, prosecutors say, there were documents - paperwork about those phony slates of electors. In his majority opinion, John Roberts mentioned creating false evidence. So this decision today may not change very much about that case against Trump.

DETROW: That's NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson. Thanks, Carrie.

JOHNSON: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.
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