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Oath Keepers leader appears in court on seditious conspiracy charges

By Tierney Sneed, CNN

As the Justice Department’s January 6 investigation takes a new turn with the use — for the first time in the Capitol attack prosecutions — of the seditious conspiracy charge, the founder of the Oath Keepers and another individual facing the charge made their first appearances in court Friday.

The Justice Department on Thursday unveiled its case against Stewart Rhodes and Edward Vallejo, who were arrested Thursday in Texas and Arizona, respectively.

The court filings made public Thursday also added the charge to the case that nine other defendants were already facing for their alleged involvement in the riot that disrupted Congress’ certification of President Joe Biden’s election win on January 6, 2021.

RELATED: Takeaways from the landmark sedition indictment against the Oath Keepers and why DOJ acted no

At some point, those defendants will have an arraignment for them to enter their plea to the new seditious conspiracy charge, but those proceedings have not been scheduled yet.

A magistrate judge on Friday scheduled a January 20 detention hearing for Rhodes — the leader of the far-right Oath Keepers — during his initial court appearance on Friday and he will remain in custody until then. Rhodes also entered a not guilty plea during his arraignment before his court appearance, according to his lawyers.

Rhodes and his attorneys will appear before the same judge — Magistrate Judge Kimberly Priest Johnson — and argue that he shouldn’t be detained because he’s neither a flight risk, nor a danger to the public. Rhodes’ attorneys said after Friday’s hearing that they expect to appeal if the judge declines to waive his detention.

Appearing in Plano, Texas, Rhodes waived his right to have his indictment read in court. The hearing was over in minutes.

At another hearing Friday afternoon before Magistrate Judge Deborah Fine in Phoenix that lasted less than 10 minutes, Vallejo — who appeared virtually from the Central Arizona Florence Correctional Complex — was ordered detained until another hearing scheduled for January 20, where his detention pretrial will be further discussed. Coincidentally, that will mark one year after Biden’s inauguration.

Vallejo’s public defender, Debbie Jang, told the court he intended to plead not guilty to all charges against him, although a formal plea was not requested at Friday’s hearing. Vallejo was wheeled up to his videoconference camera strapped into a chair, wearing an orange jumpsuit and black face mask. He told Fine he plans to hire his own attorney as soon as possible but that he has not been able to get in touch with his preferred lawyer yet.

Prosecutors accuse Vallejo of transporting weapons and coordinating with Rhodes a so-called quick reaction force team for January 6.

The Justice Department has already argued forcefully for several others in the case already to be held in jail, and prosecutors could even show evidence to the court to convince the judges the men could be dangerous

Those discussions may continue when their cases — as is expected — move to DC’s federal court, where the other January 6 prosecutions are proceeding.

Rhodes has previously denied wrongdoing.

Prosecutors’ decision to bring the charge seditious conspiracy carries symbolic and political weight; the relevant statute dates back to the Civil War-era. But it is also a risk for prosecutors, as use of the charge in the past — most recently in a 2010 case concerning a militia plot in Michigan — has faltered under scrutiny from judges.

Attorney General Merrick Garland had been reluctant to bring the charge, CNN previously reported, but prosecutors in the latest indictment were able to show granular details of alleged planning and logistics coordination among the defendants in the lead up to the Capitol attack. Of particular note are the accusations in the new filings that Rhodes, Vallejo and other defendants continued plotting even after the riot to disrupt the peaceful transfer of power.

Before the seditious conspiracy charge was brought, a central charge in DOJ’s Oath Keeper case was conspiracy to obstruct an official proceeding. US District Judge Amit Mehta recently rejected the request by several Oath Keeper defendants that he throw that charge out, and its use has been upheld by other judges presiding over separate January 6 cases.

Several Oath Keepers who do not currently face the seditious conspiracy charge brought by the DOJ Thursday face a conspiracy obstruction charge. That charge, as well as the seditious conspiracy charge, carries a 20-year maximum prison sentence.

Four of those indicted in the DOJ’s Oath Keepers’ prosecutions are known to be cooperating with the government.

This story and headline have been updated with additional developments Friday.

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CNN’s Ashley Killough, Bob Ortega, Andy Rose, Katelyn Polantz, Evan Perez, Hannah Rabinowitz and Marshall Cohen contributed to this report.

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