Supreme Court's latest decisions: Justices rule on Jan. 6 defendants, criminalization of homelessness and power of federal agencies

Demonstrators gather outside the Supreme Court on Friday.
Demonstrators gather outside the Supreme Court on Friday. (Mark Schiefelbein/AP Photo)

The Supreme Court issued three more opinions on Friday, marking the first time the justices have weighed in on the attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

Chief Justice John Roberts also announced that this coming Monday, July 1, will be the final day the court will issue opinions for this term — including the highly anticipated decision on former President Donald Trump’s claims of immunity from criminal prosecution

Here’s a roundup of the decisions that dropped today, June 28.

Case: Fischer v. United States

How the justices ruled and what it means: The Supreme Court has made it harder to charge Capitol riot defendants with obstruction — a charge that was also brought against former President Donald Trump following the events of Jan. 6, 2021. In a 6-3 vote, the court ruled because there was no proof the rioters tried to tamper with or destroy documents, they did not qualify for the obstruction charge.

This is the first time the justices weighed in on the events associated with the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.

More than 750 people have been sentenced for their involvement in the Jan 6. riots. Out of that number, around 50 were convicted with obstruction as the only felony count, which means they will likely be most affected by the ruling.

Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito declined to recuse himself from this case and former president Trump’s presidential immunity case tied to Jan. 6 after Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin called on him to do so following reports that flags were flown at his homes that symbolized support for Trump’s challenge to the 2020 election.

Some background: Joseph Fischer, a former Pennsylvania police officer, attended the rally outside of the Capitol building on Jan. 6 and was subsequently prosecuted for obstructing a Congress proceeding as well as assaulting a police officer. However, Fischer and several other defendants claimed they did not qualify for the charge under the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, the federal law that criminalizes efforts to obstruct any official proceeding.

The Sarbanes-Oxley Act was initially intended for financial misdeeds, but the DOJ argued Jan. 6 rioters violated this law when they attempted to impede Congress’s certification of electoral votes on Jan. 6, which it considers an official proceeding.

Hundreds of Jan. 6 defendants who have already been convicted and sentenced under the federal law challenged in the case — the Sarbanes-Oxley Act — will have to be resentenced.

Every Jan. 6 defendant currently charged under the obstruction statute is also facing charges for other crimes, so the Justice Department’s cases won’t be completely upended for any individuals, according to the New York Times. Trump has also been charged with two counts of obstructing and conspiring to obstruct an official proceeding under this same federal law, which means Trump’s legal team can now dispute the charges against him in the federal Jan. 6 criminal case.

Notable opinion quotes: Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson said in her concurring majority opinion that despite “the shocking circumstances involved in this case,” the “Court’s task is to determine what conduct is proscribed by the criminal statute that has been invoked as the basis for the obstruction charge at issue here.”

Case: City of Grants Pass, Oregon v. Johnson

How the justices ruled and what it means: In a 6-3 decision, the justices reversed a ruling from a San Francisco-based appeals court that found public sleeping bans were a form of cruel and unusual punishment. They found it is not a violation of the Eighth Amendment for localities across the country to criminalize those who are involuntarily homeless from camping and sleeping in public, even when shelters are full or unavailable and there’s nowhere else for them to go.

Some background: The case stems from ordinances in the city of Grants Pass, Ore., which has up to around 600 homeless people out of a population of about 38,000. The number of homeless people also exceeds the amount of shelter beds, forcing people to sleep in parks or on public property.

The city ordinances prevent the homeless from using a pillow, blanket or cardboard box inside the city’s limits to protect them from the elements. Violations of these ordinances can lead to hundreds of dollars in fines. Multiple violations can ban individuals from city property and they may be criminally charged if found trespassing.

The city of Grants Pass argues that other cities nationwide rely on such ordinances and camping laws to protect its public spaces. The challengers, who are three people homeless in Grants Pass, argue that those who are involuntarily homeless face criminal punishment based on their housing status.

The Associated Press reported in December that the U.S. reached record-high numbers of homelessness, due to factors like soaring rents and the decline of pandemic financial assistance.

Read more from Yahoo News: Should cities be allowed to punish people for sleeping on the street?

Notable opinion quote: Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote for the majority, “Homelessness is complex. Its causes are many. So may be the public policy responses required to address it. … A handful of federal judges cannot begin to ‘match’ the collective wisdom the American people possess in deciding ‘how best to handle’ a pressing social question like homelessness.”

Justice Sonia Sotomayor, one of three dissenters, wrote, “It is possible to acknowledge and balance the issues facing local governments, the humanity and dignity of homeless people and our constitutional principles. Instead, the majority focuses almost exclusively on the needs of local governments and leaves the most vulnerable in our society with an impossible choice: Either stay awake or be arrested.”

Case: Loper Bright Enterprises v. Raimondo

How the justices ruled and what it means: In a 6-3 vote, the justices overturned a 40-year-old ruling — colloquially known as the Chevron deference — that made it easier for federal agencies to regulate the environment, public health, workplace safety and consumer protections when laws are considered too ambiguous.

Some background: In 1984, a unanimous 6-0 Supreme Court decision found that in the case of Chevron v. The Natural Resources Defense Council, when a statute is ambiguous, the courts should defer to reasonable federal agency interpretations of what it means. Congress would enact broader regulatory rules and those federal agencies would “fill in the gaps.”

Chevron isn’t invoked often in the Supreme Court, the last time being in 2016.

The case was brought on by a group of commercial fishermen in New Jersey and Rhode Island who challenged daily fees that could cost up to $700 a day to pay for government-mandated officers to track their fish intake. These officers would monitor the collections and data on board the fishermen’s boats which would ultimately help shape regulations.

The fishermen argued in their case that Congress never told federal regulators to enact this extra fee to pay for third-party monitors on the boats.

Read more about the fishermen’s case from the Associated Press: Justices to consider case involving fishing boat monitor pay

Environmental and health advocacy groups are among those that have urged the court to leave the decision in place. Gun, e-cigarette, farm and timber groups were among the businesses that supported overturning and will probably financially benefit from the court’s decision.

Notable opinion quotes: Justice Elena Kagan, part of the dissent, wrote that the 1984 Chevron deference “has become part of the warp and woof of modern government, supporting regulatory efforts of all kinds — to name a few, keeping air and water clean, food and drugs safe and financial markets honest."

Kagan added: "In one fell swoop, the majority today gives itself exclusive power over every open issue — no matter how expertise-driven or policy-laden — involving the meaning of regulatory law.”