Appeals Court Upholds Lead Felony Charge in Capitol Riot Case
A federal appeals court has once again affirmed the primary felony charge used against participants in the 2021 Capitol riot, a decision that could have implications for former president Donald Trump and numerous other defendants.
Finding of the Appellate Court
Former police officer Thomas Robertson, who was convicted at trial of obstruction of Congress and other charges last year, argued on appeal that he genuinely believed the 2020 election was stolen. Robertson claimed that his actions were motivated by honesty rather than corruption when he stormed the Capitol to prevent the certification of the election results. Trump faces the same charge in the same courthouse, and his legal team has also used a similar defense, claiming that Trump believed the election was stolen and had no corrupt intent.
The appellate court ruled that there are multiple ways to establish that a defendant acted “corruptly” and that requiring dishonesty contradicts the interpretation of that term by the Supreme Court, this court, and Congress. The opinion was written by Florence Pan, a Biden appointee, and joined by Cornelia Pillard, an Obama appointee. Karen Henderson, a George H.W. Bush appointee, dissented.
Ruling Against Thomas Robertson
Prior to January 6, Robertson openly expressed his readiness for an “open armed rebellion.” He arrived in D.C. equipped with a gas mask and a large wooden stick, which he used to strike at the police guarding the Capitol. Inside the building, he aggressively pounded the floor with the stick while the crowd chanted. Robertson later celebrated his actions on social media, stating that they had attacked the government, which he believed to be the problem. He then destroyed his phone.
The appellate court ruled that Robertson’s behavior was corrupt because he violated the law in multiple ways while pursuing his goals. In addition to obstruction, he was found guilty by a jury of impeding police and destroying evidence, resulting in a sentence of 87 months in prison. The court firmly stated that this case did not present a close question of culpability.
Pending Appeal of Another Defendant
Another defendant involved in the January 6 events, who was only convicted of obstruction, is also appealing on the grounds that their behavior was not corrupt. The court’s opinion mentioned that separate felony convictions are sufficient to establish corruption, but not necessary. The question of alternative means of proving corruption will be addressed at a later date. According to the Justice Department, over 317 people have been charged with obstructing Congress as a result of the events on January 6.
Warning Against Criminalizing Political Advocacy
Robertson argued that the Justice Department is at risk of criminalizing political advocacy, which would violate the First Amendment. The court dismissed this concern, stating that peaceful lobbying and protest do not fall under the ordinary definition of “corruptly.” The court emphasized that the certification of electoral votes by Congress is not a process subject to such campaigns. Instead, it is a constitutionally mandated transfer of presidential power based on the results of an election.
Interpretation of “Corrupt” Obstruction of Congress
The obstruction law was designed to address a loophole exposed by the Enron scandal. Defendants involved in the January 6 events have claimed that the law was intended to cover evidence tampering rather than mob riots. The appellate court rejected this argument. However, the panel was divided on the issue raised by Robertson regarding what qualifies as “corrupt” obstruction of Congress versus mere protest. Judge Justin Walker, a Trump appointee, proposed that corrupt intent involves seeking an unlawful benefit for oneself or others.
The majority rejected Walker’s definition as too restrictive and disagreed that his interpretation should be binding on trial judges. Nevertheless, they asserted that Robertson’s conviction would stand regardless of the definition used because there was enough evidence to prove that Robertson intended to install Donald J. Trump, the loser of the presidential election, as the winner. In her dissent, Henderson supported Walker’s view, considering it both accurate and binding. She believed that Robertson’s conduct did not meet the criteria for corruption as he merely intended to protest the election outcome.
Comparison to the Arthur Andersen Case
A similar controversy arose in the case that led to the obstruction charge. Arthur Andersen, an accounting firm involved in the Enron scandal, was found guilty of “corruptly persuading” others to destroy evidence of fraud. However, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the conviction, unanimously agreeing that the jury was not instructed that “corruptly” must involve a consciousness of wrongdoing.
In Robertson’s case, the jurors were given this instruction and were also informed that the crime must involve unlawful means or a wrongful purpose. The court opined that it was not apparent that the “consciousness of wrongdoing” instruction was necessary in this case since the obstruction of Congress charge does not require the corruption to be committed knowingly.
Read More of this Story at www.washingtonpost.com – 2023-10-20 17:46:49
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