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Some Jan. 6 sentences were improperly enhanced, appeals court rules

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A federal appeals court panel ruled Friday that Jan. 6 defendants who obstructed Congress’ work had their sentences improperly lengthened by judges who determined that they had interfered with the “administration of justice.”

The decision could force district court judges in Washington, D.C. to recalculate, and perhaps reduce, the sentences for a slew of Jan. 6 rioters convicted of felony obstruction for their roles in the attack on the Capitol that threatened the transfer of power three years ago.

Federal sentencing guidelines encourage judges to apply the “administration of justice” enhancement to defendants who disrupt judicial proceedings like grand jury investigations or court hearings. The enhancement can increase recommended sentences by more than a year.

The Justice Department has routinely asked judges to apply the enhancement to defendants who stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, arguing that the session of Congress that day — meant to count electoral votes and certify the results of the 2020 election — should be considered the equivalent of a judicial proceeding.

A three-judge panel of the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected that argument in an appeal brought by Larry Brock, a Jan. 6 defendant who was sentenced last year to a two-year prison term for obstructing Congress’ proceedings. U.S. District Judge John Bates — a George W. Bush appointee — calculated Brock’s sentence by including the enhancement for interfering with “administration of justice.”

Brock was among the earliest rioters to breach the Capitol, wearing military gear and surging with the mob onto the Senate floor. The appeals court panel affirmed Brock’s felony conviction for his action but ordered Bates to resentence him without the enhancement attached.

“Brock’s interference with one stage of the electoral college vote-counting process — while no doubt endangering our democratic processes and temporarily derailing Congress’s constitutional work — did not interfere with the ‘administration of justice,’” wrote Judge Patricia Millett in a unanimous ruling joined by Judges Cornelia Pillard and Judith Rogers.

Millett and Pillard are Obama appointees, while Rogers is a Clinton appointee.

The ruling was in many ways a technical analysis of the meaning of government functions that can qualify as “judicial.” Congress’ count of electoral votes, the judges concluded, was just one part of a lengthy process to affirm the results of a presidential election.

“Taken as a whole, the multi-step process of certifying electoral college votes — as important to our democratic system of government as it is — bears little resemblance to the traditional understanding of the administration of justice as the judicial or quasi-judicial investigation or determination of individual rights,” the panel concluded.

Prosecutors had argued that the presence of Capitol Police and other security officials to safeguard the congressional proceedings that day bolstered their claim that the session was about administering justice. But again, the judges disagreed.

“To the extent that law enforcement is present, it is there to protect the lawmakers and their process, not to investigate individuals’ rights or to enforce Congress’s certification decision,” Millett wrote. “After all, law enforcement is present for security purposes for a broad variety of governmental proceedings that do not involve the ‘administration of justice’ — presidential inaugurations, for example, and the pardoning of the Thanksgiving Turkey.”

Justice Department officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment. It’s unclear how many cases will be affected by the panel’s ruling. But it comes as the Supreme Court is preparing to weigh whether obstruction charges apply to Jan. 6 rioters more broadly.

Some defendants have argued that the obstruction law that prosecutors have relied on — a post-Enron statute aimed at criminalizing efforts to shred documents or impair evidence used in government proceedings — has been improperly used to charge Jan. 6 rioters with felonies. The justices are slated to hear arguments on the matter in April, and their decision would not only affect dozens of rioters convicted of the crime but Donald Trump, who is facing two obstruction charges in Washington, D.C. as well.