Last week, Supreme Court Justices heard arguments over President Trump’s immunity from prosecution on the basis that the former president has cited his constitutional right as a defense against a recent indictment charging him for his actions during the 2020 U.S. Capitol insurrection. However, a lesser-known case could have even more significant implications for Trump’s prosecution than the immunity debate.
Joseph W. Fischer v. United States was brought to the court’s attention in December and has flown relatively under the radar given the high-stakes nature of the immunity case. But legal experts say that Fischer could undermine the very prosecution case that special counsel Jack Smith has built against Trump on charges related to the Jan. 6 incident.
At issue is whether the Department of Justice and prosecutors are abusing a 2002 financial fraud law to pursue charges against those involved in the Jan. 6 insurrection. Fischer’s defense argues that the “obstruction of an official proceeding” provision of the law, known as the Sarbanes-Oxley (SOX) Act, was not intended to be applied so broadly and should only pertain to crimes related to financial disclosures. If the Supreme Court were to side with Fischer, it would call into question the use of the SOX Act against not just Trump, but also the more than 300 defendants charged in connection with the Capitol riots.
Many judges have already ruled in favor of the DOJ’s interpretation of the law, but the Supreme Court’s decision to take up Fischer’s case suggests that there may be some disagreement among the bench. This is troubling for special counsel Smith, as over 150 of the Jan. 6 defendants have already been convicted under the SOX Act, and a ruling in Fischer’s favor could potentially overturn all of those convictions.
The conservative majority of the Supreme Court has historically been much more inclined to follow a strict textualist interpretation of the law. When reading the text of the SOX Act, it certainly seems that the specific “obstruction of an official proceeding” provision was only meant to apply to acts of document destruction or other forms of obstruction of justice that were in line with the financial nature of the original law.
But while the government’s argument may seem simple and straightforward, there is a critical nuance to consider. Immediately preceding the broad language of the obstruction charge is another provision that specifies “corrupt” actions, such as the alteration or concealment of records. According to Fischer’s argument, this language restricts the scope of the obstruction charge and requires that a corrupt nexus to a document or record be present in order for a defendant to be charged more broadly with obstructing an official proceeding. This would mean that in cases like Fischer’s, where he was only charged with participating in the January 6 events, there is not enough evidence to prove obstruction.
The government and lower courts have argued that these provisions should not be read together, but instead, the SOX Act should be interpreted as a whole. This would mean that the language pertaining to document destruction only pertains to that specific instance of obstruction, and the broad language in the following provision can stand alone as a charge for “obstruction of an official proceeding.”
If the Supreme Court were to rule in favor of Fischer and uphold this textual argument, it could have far-reaching effects for the Jan. 6 case against Trump. Two of the counts in the indictment against Trump are for obstruction of an official proceeding, and if these charges were to be invalidated, it could potentially mean even further delays to his already postponed trial.
In the best-case scenario for special counsel Smith, the ruling would not directly impact Trump’s case, as the indictment also includes charges for conspiracy to commit fraud and threats against the Constitution. However, it is worth noting that these charges are closely related to the obstruction charge and have the potential to be challenged under the same grounds.
Either way, legal experts predict that if the Supreme Court were to rule in Fischer’s favor, it would severely undermine Smith’s prosecution case against Trump, and could even call into question the legitimacy of the entire investigation.
At this point, it is unclear when the Fischer case will be decided, but it is likely to be before the trial against Trump currently scheduled for March 4. If the ruling were to come before the start of the trial, it would undoubtedly cause a major shake-up in the case, forcing Smith to either go forward with just the two remaining counts or possibly push for a postponed trial. However, if the ruling comes after the trial has already taken place and a guilty verdict is handed down, this would open the door for Trump’s lawyers to launch an appeal and potentially have the case against their client overturned.
As always, the fate of Trump and the Jan. 6 prosecution case hangs in the balance as the Supreme Court considers this critical decision. But legal experts say that this is a case worth watching as it could have even more significant implications for the former president’s future than the highly-publicized immunity debate.