The Supreme Court unanimously ruled yesterday that federal extortion and racketeering laws cannot be used against protesters at abortion clinics, ending a legal battle that has gone on for 20 years.
The high court’s 8-0 decision effectively bars efforts by pro-choice groups to bankrupt the pro-life movement by using federal anti-mob laws against protest groups, claiming that such organizations were violent criminal conspiracies.
But in his 15-page decision for the unanimous court, Justice Stephen G. Breyer ruled that “physical violence unrelated to robbery or extortion,” such as demonstrations by abortion opponents at clinics, “falls outside the scope of the Hobbs Act,” the federal extortion statute enacted in 1946.
“Congress did not intend to create a free-standing physical violence offense … the Hobbs Act defines ‘extortion’ as necessarily including the improper ‘obtaining of property from another,’” concluded Justice Breyer, who was appointed by President Clinton and usually supports the right to abortion.
He noted that pro-lifers demonstrating at abortion clinics “did not obtain property from women seeking to enter clinics to get abortions and so ‘did not commit extortion.’”
Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., who was not on the court when the case was argued, was the one justice not to sign the decision.
Justice Breyer also held that Congress addressed violence outside abortion clinics by passing another statute, the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act, in 1994.
But Kim Gandy, president of the National Organization for Women, charged that by vacating a nationwide injunction against abortion clinic protesters “on narrow, technical grounds, the Supreme Court sided today with thugs and bullies, not peaceful protesters.”
Mrs. Gandy held that the injunction “contributed to the dramatic reduction in clinic violence that we have witnessed in recent years.”
She noted that the 1998 injunction was imposed after a Chicago jury found that clinic demonstrators had engaged in a pattern of racketeering by interfering with clinic operations, damaging clinic property, menacing doctors and assaulting patients.
Mrs. Gandy said that if yesterday’s ruling “ushers in a return to clinic violence in the United States, NOW stands ready to fight in every jurisdiction.”
Pro-lifers exulted in the decision.
“Naturally, I am gratified to be vindicated once again by the U.S. Supreme Court,” Joseph M. Scheidler, national director of the Chicago-based Pro-Life Action League and petitioner in the case — Scheidler vs. NOW.
He said the Supreme Court was “right” in 2003 when it initially lifted a nationwide injunction against clinic protests by pro-life groups.
“But NOW refused to acknowledge defeat. They convinced the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals to keep the case alive in spite of the Supreme Court’s clear mandate to end it,” Mr. Scheidler said.
In a telephone interview yesterday, Troy Newman, president of Operation Rescue, called the high court’s unanimous decision “incredible, fantastic, awesome and a vindication for all the threats, intimidation and oppression we have endured from the pro-abortion lobby” for two decades.
He predicts the ruling will mean an “energizing” of peaceful protests at abortion clinics at a time when momentum is already on their side.
For the past two decades, said Mr. Newman, there has been a “quenching of the spirit of pro-lifers,” because of their fears “they could be sued, thrown in jail” or bankrupted by heavy fines for violating the Hobbs Act or the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), the federal anti-racketeering law.
“Joe [Scheidler] led the charge, and every pro-lifer owes him a huge debt of gratitude,” Mr. Newman said.
He pointed out that Mr. Scheidler “has sacrificed so much” for the pro-life cause and that his financial losses to pro-choice organizations in RICO cases are in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
A pro-life group called Liberty Counsel said RICO has been used to impose fines of more than $100 million against some abortion protesters.
It was an unusual move in 1986, when NOW filed a class-action lawsuit against Operation Rescue, the Pro-Life Action League, Mr. Scheidler and two other league leaders, accusing them of conducting a nationwide conspiracy designed to shut down clinics that perform abortions.
What was different was that the suit relied on the 1970 RICO law, which was primarily used in criminal cases against organized crime.
In the opinion yesterday, the Supreme Court determined the 7th Circuit was wrong to send the long-running litigation back to the federal judge to consider four other threats or acts of violence at abortion clinics.
Those cases were separate from 117 others the Supreme Court considered in 2003.
Justice Breyer said the other four cases “fall outside the scope” of the Hobbs Act and RICO. So he sent them back to the appeals court to enter a judgment on behalf of the pro-life groups.