Biden administration presents shaky arguments in Jan. 6 case at the Supreme Court: legal experts

by Natalie Tomiello

Photo: Alamy

The Supreme Court heard arguments on Tuesday, April 16, in USA v. Joseph Fischer, a case related to the events at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. The case centered on defendant Joseph Fischer and the question of whether the federal statute employed by the Justice Department in the case is appropriate.

Legal experts have expressed opinions that the arguments put forth by the Justice Department faltered when faced with questioning from the Justices.

Fischer, a former police officer, is one of many Jan. 6 defendants subject to prosecution from the Justice Department pursuant to 18 U.S.C. 1512(c)(2). On Tuesday, the Justices expressed skepticism that this statute was applicable to the actions of the Jan. 6 defendants and questioned whether the Justice Department was interpreting the statute too broadly.

The statute allows prosecution for anyone who “corruptly…obstructs, influences, or impedes any official proceeding, or attempts to do so.”

During oral arguments, the Justices asked whether the use of the statute in the case went beyond its intended scope. They also posed examples to consider whether this precedent might allow the statute to be used to prosecute actions that would normally be considered free speech and protected under the First Amendment.

When asked whether this statute could be applied to protestors or hecklers, U.S. Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar focused on the elements of corruption and intent. In responding to a line of questioning from Justice Neil Gorsuch, Prelogar stated less serious actions, such as pulling a fire alarm before a vote in Congress, could be open to prosecution if the Justice Department had evidence that the elements of the statute were satisfied.

Legal experts weighed in on the case, expressing the opinion that Prelogar gave up a lot of ground in her arguments, and granted the premise that the expanded scope of the statute might have far-reaching consequences in the future.

The Justices were left to consider the possible negative implications on future political dissent if this statute were to be construed as broadly as the Justice Department is arguing in the case.

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