Judge Florence Pan, nominated by President Biden to the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit, wrote a 2-1 opinion that upheld a district court conviction of a January 6 rioter for “corruptly” obstructing Congress’ certification of the 2020 election results, The October 2023 decision in United States v Robertson may also be important in prosecutions of former President Trump and others for election subversion.
What’s this Case About?
Thomas Robertson actively took part in the January 6, 2021 riot on Capitol Hill that sought to stop Congress from certifying the results of the 2020 election. As charged by the government, Robertson joined many others in marching to the Capitol after hearing from Trump and others and, when police tried to move through the crowd there, he “blocked their way” with a large stick and used it to “hit one officer” and swing at another. He crossed barricades, entered the Capitol building, and “was part of the mob that forced members of Congress to flee” from the Senate and House chamber. The resulting “chaos and disruption” prevented the House and Senate from resuming their work until late that evening. After January 6, Robertson “celebrated” his participation in the riot on social media.
As they did with many other January 6 rioters, federal prosecutors charged Robertson with violating a criminal law that prohibits “corruptly obstruct[ting]” an “official proceeding” of the government. Robertson was convicted, but argued on appeal that he could not have been guilty of “corrupt” conduct because he honestly believed that the election was stolen and because he would not have profited financially by his actions.
How did Judge Pan Rule and Why is it Important?
Judge Pan wrote a 2-1 decision that upheld the conviction and rejected Robertson’s effort to narrow the obstruction statute. Judge Pan wrote that “corruptly” should be interpreted “according to its plain meaning” and that there are a “range of ways” to prove that a person’s conduct was “corrupt” or “culpable.” In this case, she went on, Robertson’s conduct was “corrupt” because he used “felonious unlawful means”, such as assaulting a police officer. In addition, the majority concluded, the efforts by Robertson and the dissent to narrow the term “corruptly” and limit the statute have “no basis in the text, structure, or context” of the law and are “inconsistent with relevant precedents.”
Commentators have already noted the importance of Judge Pan’s decision. A ruling that adopted a narrow definition of “corruptly”, one commentator wrote, “could have upended” the “criminal prosecution of Donald Trump,” as well as many others who participated in the January 6 riot. Judge Pan previously wrote another 2-1 decision, over the dissent of a Trump judge, that similarly rejected an effort to limit the obstruction statute. Both the full DC Circuit and the Supreme Court may well consider the issue. In addition, the ruling provides another illustration of the importance of promptly confirming fair-minded judicial nominees by President Biden like Judge Pan.