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June 28, 2024

Supreme Court Decides Fischer v. United States

On June 28, 2024, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Fischer v. United States, No. 23-5572, holding that § 1512(c)(2) of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002, imposing criminal liability on anyone who “otherwise obstructs, influences, or impedes any official proceeding, or attempts to do so” does not apply to all forms of obstructive conduct. Rather, to prove a violation the government must establish that a defendant impaired or attempted to impair the availability or integrity for use in an official proceeding of records, documents, objects, or other things used in an official proceeding. 

Joseph Fischer was indicted for various crimes related to his conduct on January 6, 2021, at the Capitol. One of the counts was violating § 1512(c)(2). Fischer moved to dismiss that count, arguing that the provision criminalizes only attempts to impair the availability or integrity of evidence. The federal district court granted his motion in relevant part. It concluded that the scope of § 1512(c)(2) is limited by the statute’s preceding subsection, § 1512(c)(1), which imposes criminal liability on anyone who corruptly “alters, destroys, mutilates, or conceals a record, document, or other object, or attempts to do so, with the intent to impair the object’s integrity or availability for use in an official proceeding.” Therefore, according to the district court, § 1512(c)(2) requires the defendant to “‘have taken some action with respect to a document, record, or other object.’” A divided panel of the D.C. Circuit reversed and remanded for further proceedings.

The Supreme Court reversed and remanded, holding that § 1512(c)(2) is tethered to § 1512(c)(1), and thus § 1512(c)(2) does not apply to all forms of obstructive conduct, but only to the impairment of the availability or integrity of records, documents, objects, or other things used in an official proceeding, The Court explained that this interpretation was “[g]uided by the basic logic that Congress would not go to the trouble of spelling out the list in (c)(1) if a neighboring term swallowed it up, the most sensible inference is that the scope of (c)(2) is defined by reference to (c)(1).” “The idea is simply that a general phrase can be given a more focused meaning by the terms linked to it.” An “unbounded interpretation of subsection (c)(2)” would “render superfluous the careful delineation of different types of obstructive conduct in § 1512 itself.” The Court also noted that an interpretation of § 1512(c)(2) that applied to all obstructive conduct would “criminalize a broad swath of prosaic conduct, exposing activists and lobbyist to decades in prison.”

Chief Justice Roberts delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Justices Thomas, Alito, Gorsuch, Kavanaugh, and Jackson joined. Justice Jackson also filed a concurring opinion. Justice Barrett filed a dissenting opinion, in which Justices Sotomayor and Kagan joined.

Download Opinion of the Court

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