Appeals Court Ruling May Threaten DOJ Position In Dozens Of Jan. 6 Cases: Lawyer
Authored by Gary Bai via The Epoch Times (emphasis ours),
An April 7 decision issued by the D.C. Court of Appeals may jeopardize a key legal backing used by the Department of Justice (DOJ) to prosecute participants of the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol breach, according to attorney Albert Watkins.
“What this opinion did do was, it practically begged for other [Jan. 6] cases to be brought up to the Court of Appeals that would permit a more balanced opinion,” Watkins, who has represented four Jan. 6 defendants, including released prisoner Jacob Chansley, told The Epoch Times in an interview on April 11.
Watkins’ comment came after a three-judge panel at the D.C. Court of Appeals, on April 7, struck down a lower court’s ruling in a 2–1 vote, dismissing a federal charge against three Jan. 6 defendants, and rejected the lower court’s reasoning about the scope of the obstruction charge.
While the higher court’s ruling (pdf) allowed the DOJ’s prosecution of these three specific defendants—Joseph Fischer, Edward Lang, and Garret Miller—to continue, the impact of the higher court’s opinion extends beyond these cases, the attorney said.
According to Watkins, this extended impact has to do with the interpretation of a term about “corrupt” intention in the wording of obstruction charges, considering that the DOJ has been using the obstruction charge as an “attractive” legal tool to prosecute Jan. 6 cases and score plea agreements.
According to a provision in the statute for obstruction charge (18 U.S. Code § 1512 2(c)), “Whoever corruptly … otherwise obstructs, influences, or impedes any official proceeding, or attempts to do so, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than 20 years, or both.”
A narrowed definition of this provision could hinder the DOJ’s ability to use the charge further and introduce uncertainties in the ongoing trials, the attorney indicated. The DOJ had charged more than 200 Jan. 6 defendants with obstruction-related charges.
“It should cause a certain degree of trepidation on the part of the Department of Justice about utilizing—in a very footloose and fancy-free fashion—the obstruction of an official proceeding charge as the count of choice for pleas,” Watkins said. “I will say it was, in many respects, an extraordinary opinion—more time was spent addressing potential issues not before the court than the issues actually before the court.”
The key issue here is the interpretation of a necessary component of the obstruction charge (18 U.S. Code § 1512 (c)(2))—namely, the definition of “corrupt intent.”
The appeals court ruling indicates that the DOJ prosecutors set forth an interpretation of “corrupt” criminal obstructive conduct as having “a broad meaning that encompasses all forms of obstructive conduct, including appellees’ allegedly violent efforts to stop Congress from certifying the results of the 2020 presidential election.”
But all three judges of the D.C. Court of Appeals expressed some level of concern in their April 7 ruling about whether the government’s current interpretation of “corrupt” intent is appropriate.
Biden appointee Florence Pan, who wrote the majority opinion, indicated that the definition of “corrupt” intent should be determined in a later case.
“At least one pending case on this court’s docket squarely raises the definition of ‘corruptly’ under § 1512(c),” Pan wrote. “It is more prudent to delay addressing the meaning of ‘corrupt’ intent until that issue is properly presented to the court.”
Trump appointee Justin Walker, in his opinion partially concurring with the ruling, diverged from Pan’s view that “corrupt intent” should be interpreted later and wrote in his opinion that the term should be precisely defined to avoid criminalizing legal civil discourse.
Establishing a corrupt intent requires proving that a defendant intended to “obtain a benefit that he knows is unlawful,” Walker wrote, adding that this interpretation is narrower than the one offered by the government.
Without a narrowed definition, Walker wrote, the obstruction charge could become “implausibly broad” and thus “criminalize many lawful attempts to ‘influence’ congressional proceedings—protests or lobbying, for example.”
A narrowed definition could be applied to a “hypothetical” Jan. 6 protestor, Walker noted.
“This rioter joined the throng outside Congress because he was angry at the nation’s elites. He saw the riot as an opportunity to display his bravado. Though likely guilty of other crimes, he did not act ‘corruptly’ under [the statute] because he did not intend to procure a benefit by obstructing the Electoral College vote count,” Walker wrote.
It is yet to be seen if Walker’s opinion will become a binding precedent on the lower courts. Walker contends that it should be: He cited the Supreme Court’s reasoning in Marks v. United States (1977), which says the “narrowest” concurring opinion should be the binding opinion. Pan, objecting to this point in a footnote, says that the D.C. Court of Appeals “has never applied Marks to its own cases” and that “only one federal appellate court has done so.”
Thu, 04/13/2023 – 23:00