The Supreme Court ruled 6-3 in favor of a Capitol riot defendant, a decision that could affect hundreds of other cases, and raises the question of whether federal prosecutors went too far in enforcing a statute about “corruptly” obstructing, influencing, or impeding an official proceeding.

The high court’s ruling could affect the prosecutions of about 330 Americans who are charged under the 2002 federal statute with crimes connected to the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol riot. The law carries a penalty of up to 20 years in prison upon conviction. In some cases, the obstruction charge is the only felony they face.

Of those charged, about 170 Jan. 6 defendants were convicted on the anti-obstruction charge, The Associated Press reported. Some of those convicted had their sentencing delayed pending the Supreme Court’s ruling in this case. 

Further, the high court’s ruling could affect part of special counsel Jack Smith’s case against former President Donald Trump, which includes this charge.

Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the opinion in the case that the federal government’s use of the statute was overly broad. This accepted the defendant’s argument that obstruction must involve interference with evidence or documents, writing, “the Government must establish that the defendant impaired the availability or integrity for use in an official proceeding of records, documents, objects, or other things used in an official proceeding, or attempted to do so.”

The case didn’t break along predictable ideological lines. Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, a former public defender in the court’s liberal wing, sided with the conservative majority along with Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch, and Brett Kavanaugh.

Justice Amy Coney Barrett, viewed as part of the conservative wing, joined the dissent with liberal Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.

The plaintiff in the case is Joseph Fischer, a former police officer in North Cornwall Township, Pennsylvania, who was charged with obstructing an official proceeding. 

A mob of Trump supporters entered the Capitol, some apparently bent on preventing a joint session of Congress from certifying Joe Biden’s Electoral College victory over Trump in the 2020 presidential election.  

During oral arguments in April, some justices expressed skepticism about whether the statute was properly applied or whether the Justice Department overreached. 

During arguments, Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar, whose job is to argue for the government before the Supreme Court, said Fischer was prepared to use violence at the Capitol.

“He said they can’t vote if they can’t breathe,” Prelogar told the justices. 

The average term imposed is two years in prison, not 20, she said. She also argued that the statute is a “classic catchall” and shouldn’t be interpreted too narrowly.  

Fischer’s lawyer, Jeffrey Green, argued that Congress passed the 2002 anti-obstruction law in response to the financial scandal that led to the collapse of energy giant Enron. The law was intended to close loopholes in laws focused on destroying or altering documents, Green argued. 

Green argued that Fischer wasn’t in the mob that forced Congress to evacuate the Capitol, and that his client entered the building after the lawmakers already were out.

The Supreme Court, however, was reviewing the bigger picture regarding the constitutionality of the statute. 

At one point, Gorsuch asked: “Would a sit-in that disrupts a trial or access to a federal courthouse qualify? Would a heckler in today’s audience qualify, or at the State of the Union address?”

Gorsuch, referring to what Rep. Jamaal Bowman, D-N.Y., did in the Capitol last September to block a budget vote, then asked: “Would pulling a fire alarm before a vote qualify for 20 years in federal prison?”

This is a breaking news story and may be updated.