Takeaways from the Supreme Court’s decision on January 6 charges and what it means for Donald Trump

The Supreme Court on Friday limited the power of prosecutors to pursue obstruction charges against those who rioted at the US Capitol on January 6, 2021, narrowing a law that could have tacked years onto the sentences of hundreds of defendants.

The decision had implications for former President Donald Trump, who was charged with the same crime – though that impact appeared to be more limited than some initially predicted. Two Trump nominees – Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh – joined the majority.

At issue was a law passed in the wake of the Enron scandal in 2001 that bars people from obstructing an official proceeding. The Biden administration argued that the counting of electoral votes in Congress that was interrupted by a mob of Trump supporters counted.

But the Supreme Court’s 6-3 decision narrowed the scope of the law, potentially forcing a reopening of the cases against at least some of the rioters.

Here are some key takeaways from the decision.

Charges against Trump not likely affected

The people who pushed their way into the Capitol aren’t the only ones who are facing the obstruction charge. Special counsel Jack Smith also charged former President Donald Trump with the same crime.

But even before the court’s decision was handed down, Smith made clear that the charge was based on different circumstances in Trump’s case. Those charges were based on Trump’s attempt to organize and send a slate of fake electors to Congress – actions that look a lot more like the evidence tampering that was targeted by the obstruction law.

Smith has argued in court filings that the charge against Trump should survive even if the court ruled the way it did, pointing particularly to the indictment’s allegations about the fraudulent electors plot.

The Supreme Court’s opinion did not address the fake electors scheme specifically. But Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for the majority, nodded to the possibility that the obstruction statute would be violated “by creating false evidence – rather than altering incriminating evidence.”

That line could prove to be a significant problem for Trump.

Trump celebrates anyway and looks to immunity ruling

Politically, though, the former president – who has frequently sought to undercut the criminal justice system – appeared eager to frame the decision as a major loss for the Justice Department.

Trump took to social media to describe the decision as a “BIG WIN!”

But even within Trump world there was a recognition that the impact may be limited for the former president.

The likely best-case scenario, an adviser to Trump’s legal team told CNN, is that the new ruling weakens the obstruction charges against Trump, rather than prompting the charge to be dismissed. That narrowing might not even happen until appeal, the adviser said, adding that they did not expect the new ruling to delay the trial proceedings the way the pending immunity dispute could.

Still, Trump’s legal team expects to file motions based the decision in an attempt to get obstruction counts against the former president dismissed, according to a source familiar with the matter. While legal experts say they are unlikely to be successful, the source says the team will still exercise that option on behalf of the client.

At the very least, those attempts could further delay a possible trial in the case, which is already at risk of not happening before the November election.

What is far more important for Trump is the Supreme Court’s pending decision on immunity. Trump has argued for sweeping immunity for his efforts to overturn the 2020 election.

That decision is expected to land Monday.

Hundreds of other charges are pending

The opinion gives the Justice Department room to refile cases against at least some rioters accused of obstruction, because it will continue to allow them to prosecute in situations in which people attempted to impact “documents” and “other things” used in an official proceeding.

Approximately 249 cases involving the obstruction charge are pending – and in every one of those cases, the defendant faces other charges, including felonies and misdemeanors. About 52 people were convicted and sentenced with the obstruction charge as their only felony. Of those, 27 people are currently incarcerated, according to prosecutors.

The Justice Department has taken steps for months in its prosecutions of rioters to shore up the obstruction charges. That includes showing evidence to juries of the electoral vote boxes being removed from the Senate floor. That could help prosecutors sustain the charges by establishing that some of the defendants had as their goal an attempt to tamper with the records.

In a statement after the opinion was released, Attorney General Merrick Garland said he was “disappointed” because the ruling limited a law intended “to ensure that those most responsible for that attack face appropriate consequences.” But Garland also maintained that the number of people whose sentences could be significantly reduced is likely relatively small.

Still, rioters who are serving time or awaiting trial are likely to go back to a trial court to seek review.

At least one federal judge in DC on Friday said she would be re-sentencing rioters convicted of obstruction, according to court records.

Jackson joins with the court’s conservatives, Barrett with the liberals

The Supreme Court’s decision in Fischer v. US was 6-3, but the vote didn’t break entirely along traditional ideological lines – with Republican-appointed justices in the majority and the Democratic-nominated wing of the court in the minority. Instead, Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson sided with Roberts, while Justice Amy Coney Barrett wrote an opinion joined by two liberals.

That 2002 law makes it a felony to “corruptly” alter, destroy or mutilate a record with the intent of making it unavailable for use in an “official proceeding,” or to “otherwise” obstruct, influence, or impede such a proceeding. Fischer had argued that, taken together, the law was passed in response to the Enron scandal and was limited to manipulating evidence, not storming a government building.

The charge can add a maximum of 20 years onto a sentence.

Jackson embraced that argument in her solo concurrence.

“Notwithstanding the shocking circumstances involved this case,” she wrote, the court’s role was to interpret the law.

“There is no indication whatsoever that Congress intended to create a sweeping, all-purpose obstruction statute,” Jackson wrote.

Barrett, a Trump nominee, fired back at that reading. Why did the majority side with Fischer, she asked rhetorically?

“Because it simply cannot believe that Congress meant what it said,” she wrote.

Chief’s opinion breezes over Capitol attack

Roberts largely avoided discussion of the traumatic and deadly events of January 6, 2021, in his 16-page opinion – just as the court did when it hear arguments in the case in April. Instead, the decision turned largely on a technical and legalistic debate over the meaning of the words in the law – and, in particular, the word “otherwise.”

The chief justice devoted just a few lines to explaining some of the facts behind the attack that took place within view of the Supreme Court. Roberts wrote that the breach “of the Capitol caused members of Congress to evacuate the chambers and delayed the certification process.” And he noted that the defendant who filed the appeal, a former Pennsylvania police officer named Joseph Fischer, “was involved in a physical confrontation with law enforcement.”

The meager discussion of the attack itself was clearly an effort to steer clear of what has become a highly charged political fight over the attack, with some Republicans – including Trump – attempting to explain away what happened that day.

Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, a former defense attorney and US District judge who presided over early cases involving the attack, joined the majority. But in a concurrence, the liberal justice discussed the attack in stark terms.

“On January 6, 2021, an angry mob stormed the United States Capitol seeking to prevent Congress from fulfilling its constitutional duty to certify the electoral votes in the 2020 presidential election,” she wrote in the opening lines of her opinion. “The peaceful transfer of power is a fundamental democratic norm, and those who attempted to disrupt it in this way inflicted a deep wound on this nation.

“But today’s case is not about the immorality of those acts,” she said.

The three dissenting justices also kept their references to the riot at a minimum. Justice Amy Coney Barrett, writing for herself and two members of the court’s liberal wing, said Fischer “allegedly participated in a riot at the Capitol that forced the delay of Congress’s joint session on January 6th.”

“Blocking an official proceeding from moving forward surely qualifies as obstructing or impeding the proceeding by means other than document destruction,” Barrett wrote.

CNN’s Kristen Holmes and Paula Reid contributed to this report.

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