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Supreme Court hands a victory to some January 6 defendants

DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, HOST:

The Supreme Court has handed a victory to many of the defendants charged in the January 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol. On Friday, the court, in a 6-to-3 ruling, narrowed the scope of a felony charge brought in hundreds of these cases. NPR investigative correspondent Tom Dreisbach is here to walk us through what this all means for the January 6 investigation. Good morning, Tom.

TOM DREISBACH, BYLINE: Good morning.

KURTZLEBEN: So first, just give us the basics on this case and what the court found in it.

DREISBACH: This is a case about a felony criminal charge known as obstruction of an official proceeding. It's a felony. The maximum penalty is 20 years in prison. So it's one of the more serious charges. And in more than 300 cases, federal prosecutors alleged that these January 6 defendants committed that crime by essentially obstructing Congress and the certification of the Electoral College vote that was happening that day.

These defendants challenged that. They said this law was passed after the Enron accounting scandal. It was really about obstructing investigations by destroying records, shredding documents - that kind of thing - and not about storming the Capitol and forcing Congress to evacuate. And the Supreme Court tended to agree with those arguments. They basically said in this ruling that prosecutions under this law need to show some link to destroying records.

KURTZLEBEN: OK. That all seems like it would really weaken the government's case against the rioters. How will it affect those cases?

DREISBACH: Well, it is significant for some of these alleged rioters and convicted rioters. A good number of these defendants already served years in prison on this charge. But for some defendants, this was the only felony they got charged with, and if you can wipe that from your record, it really is a big deal. People convicted of felonies can't own guns, for example. And if the felony is gone, you can get your gun rights back.

Defendants who are awaiting trial - that's the case for dozens of people - they can fight the Justice Department to get the charge dropped now. But I think the consequences are also going to be a bit complicated as this works its way through the lower courts and maybe even a little bit narrower than people might expect.

KURTZLEBEN: So why would that be?

DREISBACH: Well, it's worth remembering that there are almost 1,500 people who have been charged in connection with January 6, and the majority of them were not charged with this felony. They were charged with things like assaulting cops, trespassing on Capitol grounds, destroying property.

And those cases are completely unaffected. And then there are people who pleaded guilty to this charge. But as part of the guilty pleas, they generally waived their right to an appeal. They also agreed that the government could retry them on other charges if this charge got tossed by the Supreme Court.

Then there's the people who went to trial and were convicted on this charge. They can now ask a judge to take another look at their case, in light of the Supreme Court ruling. They might be able to get resentenced. But legal experts said judges really have a lot of leeway here. These folks were also convicted on other charges, and so judges may keep their sentences pretty tough, even in light of this ruling. Basically, as a January 6 attorney said, expect a lot of litigation, and that has already just gotten started.

KURTZLEBEN: Now, this has been a closely watched Supreme Court case. What have the reactions to the ruling been like?

DREISBACH: Well, January 6 defendants are taking this as a major victory. Former President Donald Trump called it a big win. He's a big supporter of the January 6 defendants, calls them political prisoners. Trump, we should say, has also been charged with this obstruction law as part of his own January 6 case, but it's a little too early to say how this ruling might affect his case. His case does involve, potentially, documents and records, like the fake electors the Trump team submitted, so TBD on that.

The Justice Department, meanwhile, says it will comply with this ruling. They say they will continue to use all available tools to hold people accountable for crimes on January 6, which they consider an act of domestic terrorism. But there's no doubt that the Supreme Court has at least limited how prosecutors can use one of those tools they've been using.

KURTZLEBEN: That's NPR investigative correspondent Tom Dreisbach. Thanks so much, Tom.

DREISBACH: Thanks, Danielle. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Tom Dreisbach is a correspondent on NPR's Investigations team focusing on breaking news stories.
Danielle Kurtzleben is a political correspondent assigned to NPR's Washington Desk. She appears on NPR shows, writes for the web, and is a regular on The NPR Politics Podcast. She is covering the 2020 presidential election, with particular focuses on on economic policy and gender politics.