Judge hears arguments in Schaffer case

File photo Jon Schaffer is facing six federal crimes for his alleged involvement in the Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol insurrection.

WASHINGTON — A federal judge has rejected a request from a former Columbus resident who pleaded guilty to storming the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, to delay his sentencing hearing until the Supreme Court weighs in on the scope of a law used to prosecute him and hundreds of other defendants following the deadly insurrection, including former President Donald Trump.

U.S District Judge Amit P. Mehta recently denied the request from an attorney representing former heavy metal musician and Columbus resident Jon Schaffer, who had sought to delay his Feb. 20 sentencing hearing until the Supreme Court decides the scope of the felony charge of obstructing an official proceeding — one of two charges that Schaffer pleaded guilty to in April 2021.

However, Mehta agreed to push back Schaffer’s sentencing hearing until April 5 on medical grounds, as the Oath Keeper and former member of heavy metal band Iced Earth might undergo an undisclosed medical procedure “with the need for a recovery afterwards,” according to filings in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C.

While Mehta postponed the hearing 45 days, waiting for the Supreme Court’s decision could have delayed sentencing until early summer, when the justices are expected to decide an appeal challenging how federal prosecutors applied the obstruction charge brought against hundreds of people stemming from the Capitol riot.

Federal prosecutors said in court filings that they were opposed to delaying sentencing until the high court issues its decision but did not object to a “brief” delay for medical reasons. The justices are expected to hear arguments in the case, United States v. Fischer, in March or April.

“The sentencing hearing presently scheduled for Feb. 20, 2024, is hereby vacated due to the health considerations outlined in defendant’s motion,” Mehta wrote in the order. “The court will not stay sentencing until resolution of United States v. Fischer. There are other procedural mechanisms by which defendant can seek to delay any term of incarceration, if one is imposed. …And the public interest weighs in favor of not delaying sentencing until the outcome of Fischer.”

The order came about two months after the Supreme Court said it would hear an appeal challenging the scope of the obstruction of an official proceeding charge that has been brought against more than 300 people, including Schaffer and Trump, The Associated Press reported. The charge, which carries up to 20 years behind bars, refers to the disruption of Congress’ certification of Joe Biden’s 2020 presidential election victory over Trump.

It is among the four counts brought against Trump in special counsel Jack Smith’s case that accuses the 2024 Republican presidential primary front-runner of conspiring to overturn the results of his election loss, according to wire reports. Trump is also charged with conspiracy to obstruct an official proceeding.

It is also one of two charges that Schaffer pleaded guilty to. He also pleaded guilty to one count of entering and remaining in a restricted building or ground with a deadly or dangerous weapon.

The case that the Supreme Court will hear involves Joseph Fischer, a former Pennsylvania police officer, who is facing a seven-count indictment for his actions on Jan. 6, 2021, including the obstruction charge, and two other defendants, according to wire reports.

In court filings, Fischer’s attorneys argue that he “was not part of the mob that forced the electoral certification to stop” because he arrived at the Capitol grounds on Jan. 6, 2021, “well after Congress recessed.” He pushed his way through the crowd, walked up the east side of the building and entered the Capitol, getting “about 20 feet inside the building.”

“As he neared the police line, the swell of the crowd then knocked Mr. Fischer to the ground,” according to his petition for the Supreme Court to hear his case. “Returning to his feet, Mr. Fischer returned lost equipment, a pair of handcuffs, to a Capitol police officer. He talked with an officer, patting him on the shoulder. Then the weight of the crowd pushed Mr. Fischer into the police line. With that, the Capitol police pepper sprayed the protestors, blinding Mr. Fischer. He exited (the Capitol) four minutes after entering.”

In March 2022, U.S. District Judge Carl Nichols dismissed the obstruction charge, finding that prosecutors stretched the law beyond its scope to inappropriately apply it in these cases, according to the AP. Nichols ruled that a defendant must have taken “some action with respect to a document, record or other object” to obstruct an official proceeding.

The Justice Department challenged that ruling, and the appeals court in Washington agreed with prosecutors in April that Nichols’ interpretation of the law was too limited, prompting Fischer’s lawyers to appeal to the Supreme Court.

Other Jan. 6 defendants, including Schaffer, also have separately challenged the use of the charge.

On Jan. 23, Schaffer’s attorney filed a heavily redacted motion seeking to delay his sentencing hearing pending the outcome of the Supreme Court case.

In the motion, which was later partially unredacted, Schaffer’s attorney, Andrew C. Marcantel of Attorneys for Freedom Law Firm, argued that the Supreme Court’s decision “directly relates to and impacts the validity” of Schaffer’s plea and conviction and could factor into what his ultimate sentence would be.

“If Mr. Schaffer is sentenced to a term of incarceration (for the obstruction charge) … and begins serving his sentence, he will be irreparably harmed as he would lose his gainful employment, uproot his life and serve time for a felony that may be invalidated by the Fischer outcome,” Marcantel wrote in the motion.

In Schaffer’s case, federal authorities justified the obstruction charge by alleging that he “attempted to, and did, corruptly obstruct, influence and impede an official proceeding; that is, Schaffer forcibly entered the Capitol to, and did, stop, delay and hinder Congress’ certification of the Electoral College vote,” according to court records.

“Schaffer … positioned himself at the front of a large mob that broke open the Capitol building doors being guarded by four Capitol police officers wearing riot gear,” according to court filings. “Schaffer was among the first six individuals to push past the damaged doors and into the building, forcing officers to retreat. As the mob swelled inside, and officers were being assaulted, Schaffer and other members of the mob continued to advance while aggressively gesturing toward a row of five to six backpedaling officers trying to maintain a security line in front of them.”

Schaffer was photographed inside the Capitol wearing a tactical vest and hat that said, “Oath Keepers Lifetime Member,” with bear spray in his hand, according to court filings.

As part of his guilty plea, Schaffer acknowledged that he is “a founding, lifetime member of the Oath Keepers” and believes that “the federal government has been ‘co-opted’ by a cabal of elites actively trying to strip American citizens of their rights.”

The Oath Keepers is a militia group that recruits current and former military, police and first responders.

Federal prosecutors, for their part, objected to delaying the sentencing hearing until the Supreme Court issues its decision, arguing that the obstruction charge is not the only crime Schaffer pleaded guilty to. They further argued that potentially postponing the hearing for six months or more would “undermine the interest of the public in the timely adjudication of a case of great significance” and afford him an “unfair advantage” over other Jan. 6 defendants, including some who have already been sentenced for the offense and are currently in prison.

“Even if the Supreme Court were to decide Fischer adversely to the government, it is not clear that the court’s interpretation of (the obstruction charge) would necessarily invalidate Schaffer’s conviction in this case,” federal prosecutors wrote in their response. “And even if it did, the appropriate venue for challenging such a sentence would be a post-sentencing appeal, and not a motion to set aside the verdict. …Moreover, obstruction of Congress was not Defendant Schaffer’s only conviction. He will also be sentenced for unlawfully entering or remaining in a restricted building or grounds with a deadly or dangerous weapon.”

Federal prosecutors also asked the judge to specify during the hearing what Schaffer’s sentence would be if the obstruction charge was invalidated.

“Regardless of the implications of Fischer, the public and the government have a right to finality on the defendant’s other conviction,” federal prosecutors wrote in their response.

But the potential for a Supreme Court ruling to undo one of Schaffer’s charges adds yet another twist to a legal saga that began about a week and a half after a violent mob of pro-Trump rioters stormed the U.S. Capitol and attempted to prevent the certification of the 2020 presidential election.