Court Battles

Federal judge rules against Oath Keepers, upholding felony charge

A federal judge denied a legal challenge against the heaviest charge that has been brought against Capitol riot defendants, upholding the felony count that federal prosecutors have relied on in the months since the attack.

U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta ruled Monday night that prosecutors will be allowed to move forward with the obstruction of an official proceeding charge against 17 defendants affiliated with the right-wing paramilitary group the Oath Keepers.

In a 49-page opinion, Mehta, an Obama appointee, rejected the defendants’ various arguments, including that the obstruction charge is unconstitutionally vague and that the prosecutors’ application of it in the context of the riot imperils First Amendment protections for demonstrators.

“Their alleged conduct was no mere political protest or trespass. If proven, their conduct crossed the line to criminal conduct: they ‘corruptly’ conspired to, and did, ‘obstruct, influence, and impede an official proceeding,’ ” Mehta wrote, quoting the statute’s text.

Mehta is the third judge so far to uphold the obstruction of an official proceeding charge in challenges brought by Capitol riot defendants.

The count is among the most serious that have been brought by the Justice Department in response to the attack. If a defendant is found guilty of obstructing an official proceeding, it carries a maximum possible prison sentence of 20 years.

Defendants have challenged the law as vague, argued that the Electoral College certification vote that took place on Jan. 6 doesn’t qualify as an “official proceeding” and said that its use against the Capitol rioters threatens other protesters who sometimes peacefully disrupt congressional proceedings.

If the rulings upholding the charge are to stand, it will still be up to prosecutors to convince juries of the rioters’ guilt under the novel application of the law.

Their success could also have implications beyond the individual cases against those who entered the Capitol that day. The House Jan. 6 Select Committee has indicated in recent days that it is examining whether the charge could also apply to former President Trump’s conduct on Jan. 6.

“Did Donald Trump, through action or inaction, corruptly seek to obstruct or impede Congress’s official proceeding to count electoral votes?” Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), the select committee’s vice chair, said last week.

This story was updated at 3:29 p.m.

Tags Capitol riot Donald Trump Jan. 6 panel Liz Cheney Oath Keepers

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