Criminal case against Trump may be in jeopardy due to Supreme Court decision

The blows keep coming for the American justice system. Time and again, the Supreme Court has delayed the criminal trial against Donald Trump for his role in the assault on the Capitol. And now, while a decision is still pending in that case, the same court is shaking up hundreds of other cases. The chief justices believe that some 350 people may have been unfairly prosecuted for their actions on January 6, 2021.

The Supreme Court ruled Friday that a legal provision that enforces justice against people who entered the Capitol in Washington that day is not fit for purpose. As a result, judges must review their sentences. Some convicts can be released in one go. At a rally on Friday, Trump called for the immediate release of those arrested.

About the Author
Thomas Rueb is a correspondent in the United States of by Volkskrant. He lives in New York.

The assault on the Capitol sparked the largest judicial initiative in the history of the United States. Some 1,400 suspects were criminally prosecuted. Most were accused of vandalism, destruction or theft – simple facts. But for the most serious cases, the judicial system took a different approach.

The legal provision used by the judiciary in such cases revolves around ‘obstruction of an official proceeding’. These rioters, the reasoning goes, attempted with their actions to prevent Congress from ratifying Joe Biden’s electoral victory. This carries a maximum prison sentence of 20 years.

Upset

A majority of six of the nine chief justices now consider that provision to be inadequate. They have read it carefully. According to them, obstruction only occurs if a suspect manipulates tangible objects, such as, as the law says, “altering, destroying, damaging or concealing a document.” This would not include interrupting a proceeding.

Three chief justices disagree, including conservative Trump appointee Amy Coney Barrett. The right-wing majority received support from Ketanji Brown Jackson, who was appointed by Biden in 2022.

“I am disappointed by the decision,” Attorney General Merrick Garland said Friday. He said it had become more difficult to take “appropriate action” against those “who bear the greatest responsibility for that attack.”

According to the Justice Department, most of the prosecutions are not affected. Most of the rioters were also convicted of other criminal offenses in addition to this disputed element. In some cases, judges could increase the other penalty, so that the amount of their final sentence remains intact. About 27 participants were prosecuted solely for obstruction. They will likely be released immediately.

The Trump case

The big question is the influence of this decision on the criminal proceedings against Donald Trump. Prosecutor Jack Smith built a complex case against the former president after January 6, 2021, the most serious of his four prosecutions. Trump has also been accused of obstruction.

According to the judiciary, this does not have to be a problem. The documents were also involved with Trump. He is said to have used falsified lists of names on January 6, 2021, in an attempt to get electors in swing states to vote for him instead of winner Joe Biden. This could also be considered an obstacle according to this reading.

The Supreme Court did not mention the Trump case on Friday. Only Ketanji Brown Jackson, though he has joined his conservative colleagues, appears to be moving in this direction. In a separately published explanation, he mentions the question of electoral votes as an example to which the legal provision applies.

The final decision now rests with Tanya Chutkan, the criminal judge in Trump’s case. She will have to make her own decision based on the ruling. If Trump subsequently appeals, the matter could still end up before the Supreme Court.

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