Petitions of the week
Court asked to review prosecution of Jan. 6 participants, with implications for Trump
on Sep 8, 2023 at 3:37 pm
On August 3, President Donald Trump pleaded not guilty to criminal charges related to the January 6, 2021 attack on the United States Capitol and interfering with the results of the 2020 election. A day later, Trump posted on his Truth Social account that “the Supreme Court must intercede.”
Even if the justices agree to wade into the fray, they might not be asked to do so for months. But they will have a chance far sooner to decide whether to weigh in on a key element of the government’s case. This week, we highlight petitions that ask the court to consider, among other things, whether federal prosecutors can seek to punish participants in the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol – and possibly, the former president – under a financial-crimes law that bars obstruction of government proceedings.
Congress passed the Sarbanes-Oxley Act in 2002 following a series of high-profile investment scandals, most notably the collapse of Enron. The law increased protections for investors and whistleblowers in the corporate-finance industry. One provision of that law, known as Section 1512(c), makes it a crime, carrying a maximum prison sentence of 20 years, to “corruptly” tamper with evidence for use in an official proceeding or “otherwise” obstruct that proceeding.
Garrett Miller was one of thousands of Trump supporters arrested in the aftermath of Jan. 6. Miller was charged with assaulting Capitol police, a felony, and disorderly conduct inside the Capitol building, a misdemeanor. Seeking a higher sentence, prosecutors also charged Miller with violating Section 1512(c). The government argued that, under the second clause, Miller had “obstruct[ed]” an “official proceeding” – namely, Congress’ session to certify the results of the 2020 election.
Miller did not contest the charges for assaulting police and disorderly conduct. However, he sought to have the charge for obstructing an official proceeding dismissed. The government’s reading of Section 1512(c) was too broad, he insisted. In particular, Miller argued that the provision’s two clauses function in tandem, outlawing corrupt conduct that “otherwise obstructs” a government proceeding only if that conduct tampers with evidence.
A federal district court in Washington agreed and dismissed the obstruction charges. But the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit reinstated them against Miller and two other men, Edward Lang and Joseph Fischer, charged in connection with the Jan. 6 attacks. (Lang has filed a separate petition that is currently pending at the court; Fischer received an extension until next month to file his petition.) The appeals court held that the law’s two clauses function independently, barring not only evidence tampering but also conduct that, even if not directed at any government record, “otherwise obstructs” a government proceeding. That reading, the D.C. Circuit explained, is consistent with the ordinary meaning of terms like “otherwise” and “obstruct.”
In Miller v. United States, Miller asks the justices to grant review and reverse the D.C. Circuit’s ruling. He argues that nothing in the Sarbanes-Oxley Act suggests that Congress intended it to enable prosecutors to seek 20-year prison sentences for any criminal conduct that interferes with government business. “Elevating the national political salience of the issues raised here,” Miller wrote in July, “it appears that the former president of the United States, and candidate in the 2024 presidential election, will be charged under the same … theory of liability that the government has filed against [Miller] and hundreds of others.”
As Miller suggested, Trump’s high-profile indictment on federal charges last month in Washington, D.C., included a charge that he violated Section 1512(c).
A list of this week’s featured petitions is below:
City and County of San Francisco, California v. Kirola
Issue: Whether a court may order injunctive relief in a case where the sole named plaintiff failed to prove she suffered any legal injury at trial but the trial record shows isolated injury to unnamed class members.
Chiaverini v. City of Napoleon, Ohio
Issue: Whether Fourth Amendment malicious-prosecution claims are governed by the charge-specific rule, under which a malicious prosecution claim can proceed as to a baseless criminal charge even if other charges brought alongside the baseless charge are supported by probable cause, or by the “any-crime” rule, under which probable cause for even one charge defeats a plaintiff’s malicious-prosecution claims as to every other charge, including those lacking probable cause.
Hoganson v. Colorado
Issue: Whether, where a maximum prison term may be doubled upon a finding of “extraordinary … aggravating circumstances,” the Sixth Amendment requires the existence of such circumstances to be submitted to the jury and found beyond a reasonable doubt.
Miller v. United States
Issues: (1) Whether the obstruction-of-justice offenses in 18 U.S.C. § 1512(c) cover only acts that affect the integrity or availability of evidence, or whether they criminalize advocacy, lobbying, and protest in connection with congressional proceedings that are neither inquiries nor investigations, such as Congress’ joint session to certify the Electoral College vote count; and (2) whether Section 1512(c)’s “corruptly” element requires proof that the defendant acted with the intent to obtain an unlawful benefit, or whether it merely requires proof that the defendant acted with an improper or wrongful purpose or through unlawful means.