Supreme Court Petitioned by Jan. 6 Rioter: A Deep Dive into the Obstructing Justice Charge

 July 26, 2023

Edward Lang, a defendant facing multiple charges for his role in the Capitol riot on January 6, 2021, is seeking the Supreme Court's intervention on one of his charges.

He asserts that this specific charge could be used against any protest attendee, should the event spiral into chaos. Now, for a frustrated freshman like myself trying to stay afloat in the sea of political turmoil, this might just add a new layer of complexity to an already mind-boggling case.

The nature of the charge in question deals with obstruction of justice. It's part of the broader federal law, namely Section 1512 (c)(2) of the United States Code. The defendant's plea raises some serious legal concerns. Will this set a precedent for hundreds of other pending cases against participants of the protest-turned-riot? For a more detailed look into the issue, refer to the report in the Washington Examiner.

The Unresolved Quandary: Interpreting Federal Law

On the fateful day of January 6, Lang reportedly picked up a police riot shield, smashed it into the ground near law enforcement officers, and swung a baseball bat at them multiple times, according to an FBI affidavit.

Pretty serious stuff. But is it enough to trigger a 20-year sentence for obstruction of justice?

The U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia seemed to think not, initially granting Lang's motion to dismiss the charge. An appeals court later reversed this decision, leading to a denied request for a rehearing.

A Penetrating Scrutiny: The "Obstructing Justice" Charge

This particular charge, obstruction of justice, carries the harshest punishment so far in the Jan. 6 cases. It's been slapped on some notable figures involved in the riot, like Enrique Tarrio and Stewart Rhodes, leaders of the groups Proud Boys and Oath Keepers, respectively.

"Hang on," I hear you say, "isn't the context of this statute's origin a little different?" And you'd be right.

This statute was first introduced in the early 2000s to crack down on white-collar crime. Specifically, it was codified in the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002, an Act born out of the accounting fraud scandal surrounding Enron and WorldCom.

A Legal Minefield: The Broad Interpretation of the Statute

Norm Pattis, Lang's attorney, argues that the broad interpretation of this statute to Lang's case is alarming. Pattis points out that the statute's language suggests that an individual who interferes with any official proceeding can be imprisoned for up to 20 years.

Pattis expressed his concern:

"What does it mean to do something corruptly? [...] a lot of people are gonna be afraid to turn up at public events for fear if somebody acts up, they're all gonna go to prison."

Federal Judge Florence Y. Pan, tapped by Biden to succeed Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, defended the charge for Lang and two other defendants. According to her, the alleged assaultive conduct by Lang fits within the statute's language.

The Potential Fallout: A Pervasive Charge

Interestingly, the House committee investigating the riot used this charge when it issued criminal referrals against Trump. With the former president's recent announcement about receiving a target letter related to special counsel Jack Smith's investigation, there's speculation that Trump may also face this charge.

Pattis stated, "The way the statute's being read by the Justice Department, it could be put to that use" in Trump's potential third indictment.

Now, here's a big twist: Pattis thinks that such a case would be perfect for Supreme Court review. This is especially true in light of a recent decision in Counterman v. Colorado. In this case, the court ruled that the government must prove a defendant knew their communication would be perceived as a threat.

Unmasking the Figures: The Charges So Far

As of July 6, more than 1,069 rioters have been arrested, with approximately 594 federal defendants receiving sentences.

More than 310 defendants, including Lang, have been charged with "corruptly obstructing, influencing, or impeding an official proceeding, or attempting to do so," according to the DOJ.

Lang is currently a pretrial detainee and is set to go to trial in the fall.

Speaking Out: The Petition to the Justices

The petition, seeking a Supreme Court review, lands as the nation's attention swivels towards the 2024 election. It argues that the DOJ's use of the statute might restrict political speech and expression during the lead-up to the next Presidential election.

The nine justices will consider the case in a Sept. 26 conference, according to the high court's docket.

Here's a quick wrap-up:

- Lang faces multiple charges from the Capitol riot, and he's seeking the Supreme Court's intervention on one charge.
- The charge of obstructing justice under Section 1512 (c)(2) of the United States Code is under scrutiny.
- Notable figures involved in the riot also face this charge.
- The broad interpretation of the statute is causing concerns.
- The charge, if held valid, could have wider implications for political protests.
- The case might end up in the Supreme Court, making it a key precedent for future cases.
- The DOJ's use of the statute might stifle political expression.