In the January 6 Cases, a Federal Appeals Court Upheld the Justice Department’s Use of Crucial Obstruction Law

The Justice Department was able to utilize a crucial criminal charge against hundreds of January 6 rioters, and the federal appeals court in Washington, DC, has supported this decision, finding that they can be charged with obstructing Congress.

When a defendant has corrupt intent and is aiming at an official procedure, such the certification of the presidential election by Congress on January 6, 2021, the appeals court ruled a “broad range of conduct” can constitute obstruction.

More than 300 criminal cases stemming from the Capitol incident will be affected by the monumental verdict. The Justice Department has relied heavily on the charge of obstructing official proceedings in the most serious Capitol riot cases, where defendants were either physically present during the riot or made public statements about their desire to prevent Congress from certifying President Joe Biden’s Electoral College win.

Defendants in the instances that sparked the appeal were accused of assaulting Capitol police, which necessitated increased security measures to safeguard lawmakers inside the building and ultimately delayed Electoral College certification by several hours.

January 6 Obstruction Charge

Changing, destroying, or mutilating a record, document, or other object with the goal to render it unavailable in an official procedure, or “otherwise” obstructing, influencing, or impeding any official proceeding, is a crime under the statute.

A loss for the Justice Department would have put hundreds of cases against individual rioters in jeopardy, thus the verdict was eagerly awaited in the January 6 inquiry. Yet the panel’s three judges couldn’t agree on how to interpret the obstruction legislation and wrote their opinions in different ways.

According to the majority judgment, written by Judge Florence Pan of the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit on Friday, “The broad interpretation of the statute – encompassing all forms of obstructive acts – is unambiguous and natural,”

Pan’s decision from January 6 also details how prosecutors can consider the obstruction accusation, which carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in jail.

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Unless further appeals overturn the ruling, the circuit court’s opinion is now binding precedent in federal courts in DC, and could be used against future defendants in cases involving January 6, including those looked at by the office of special counsel Jack Smith, who is investigating former President Donald Trump and his allies.

Their rulings from last Friday, however, failed to answer a crucial point about how the Justice Department could apply the accusation to individuals whose wrongdoing is less obvious. The Justice Department may be restricted in its future use of the allegation because the majority opinion written by Pan did not establish how the courts should characterize corrupt activity performed by rioters.

When discussing obstruction charges in relation to January 6, Pan and Walker disagreed over whether the term “corruptly” meant that prosecutors had to prove a defendant’s conduct were to benefit themselves or others.

The judges were ambiguous about which interpretation might be authoritative in Washington, DC, so the issue could come up again in future appeals. I leave the exact boundaries of ‘corrupt’ intent for another day because “the work of defining ‘corruptly’ is not before us and I am confident that the government has alleged conduct by appellees sufficient to meet that element,”

Pan was a writer. She pointed out that there was no way to dispute corrupt intent in the rioter cases that sparked the appeal because the defendants were accused of assaulting police. In his dissenting opinion, Circuit Judge Justin Walker interpreted the obstruction statute more narrowly, holding that the provision only applies if the defendant takes affirmative steps to obstruct justice.

“With the specific goal of receiving or giving an illicit benefit to himself or another.” But, Walker concluded that the DOJ’s obstruction charges against rioters were warranted. That the defendants “supposedly” worked to ensure Donald Trump’s election as president rather than themselves or their allies is true.

As Walker penned. Therefore, it is not necessary for the defendant or his associates to be the recipient of an illegal advantage. To bribe a presidential elector to vote for a chosen candidate, even if the defendant had never seen the candidate and was not affiliated with him, would likely result in a guilty verdict.

In the split ruling, Judge Greg Katsas of the DC Circuit Court of Appeals dissented. Katsas agreed with a lower court judge who dismissed obstruction charges against certain January 6 rioters on the grounds that their activities during the uprising had nothing to do with the destruction of official records or evidence.

Katsas claimed that his colleagues’ interpretation of the obstruction legislation was very broad and would allow for aggressive criminal charges whenever a demonstrator knew they were likely breaking the law.

He argued that the law mandates a defendant’s intent to, “Aim to gain a financial, professional, or exonerating advantage through illegal means” whereas the situations at hand entail having one’s favored candidate remain, President is “the much more widespread, intangible advantage.”

Despite Katsas’ interpretation, Walker argued in his decision that the legislation still stood.The opposing opinion states that in order for a defendant’s actions to be considered “corrupt,” the benefit he seeks must be either “financial,” “professional,” or “exculpatory.”

“I have my doubts,” Walker wrote. Also, there’s the possibility of personal gain in this scenario. It seems possible that the Defendants’ actions were an attempt to aid Donald Trump in unethically gaining a professional advantage — the presidency.

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