Supreme Court makes it harder to charge Jan. 6 defendants with obstruction

File: Pro-Trump supporters storm the U.S. Capitol following a rally with President Donald Trump on January 6, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Samuel Corum/Getty Images)

A U.S. Supreme Court decision will make it harder for the Justice Department to charge Capitol riot defendants with obstruction – a charge that former President Donald Trump also faces in connection with his role on Jan. 6, 2021.

The high court released the ruling Friday, returning the case of former Pennsylvania police officer Joseph Fischer to a lower court to determine if he can be charged with obstruction. Fischer has been indicted for his role in the deadly riot that interrupted Congress’ certification of Democrat Joe Biden’s 2020 presidential election victory over Trump.

In a 6-3 decision, justices ruled that the charge of obstructing an official proceeding, enacted in 2002 in response to the financial scandal that brought down Enron Corp., must include proof that defendants tried to tamper with or destroy documents. 

Only some of the people charged in connection with the Capitol riot fall into that category.

Trump and his Republican allies will likely capitalize on the decision, stoking claims that the Justice Department has treated the Capitol riot defendants unfairly. Justices Amy Coney Barrett, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan dissented. 

It’s still not clear what impact the ruling could have in the case against Trump, who faces the same obstruction charge for his efforts to overturn his election loss. Special Counsel Jack Smith, who’s overseeing Trump’s federal criminal cases, has said Trump’s charges won’t be affected. 

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About 350 people have been charged with obstruction for their role in the Capitol riot. Some pleaded guilty to or were convicted of lesser charges. More than 1,400 people have been charged with Capitol riot-related federal crimes. Approximately 1,000 of them have pleaded guilty or been convicted by a jury or a judge after a trial.

The Justice Department said no one who has been convicted of or charged with obstruction will be completely cleared because of the ruling. Every defendant also has other felony or misdemeanor charges, or both, prosecutors said.

Obstruction was the only felony count for roughly 50 people who were convicted. Prosecutors say about two dozen rioters currently serving time in prison will likely be impacted by the Supreme Court ruling.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.