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High court to hear appeal from anti-abortion protesters

By The Associated Press

04.22.02

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WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court agreed today to use a long-running lawsuit over violence and harassment outside abortion clinics to clarify how an anti-racketeering law applies to all manner of demonstrations and civil disobedience.

The court said it would consider combined appeals from Operation Rescue, anti-abortion leader Joseph Scheidler and others who were ordered to pay damages to abortion clinics and barred from interfering with their business for 10 years.

Federal courts found that the anti-abortion protesters illegally blocked clinic entrances, menaced doctors, patients and clinic staff and destroyed equipment during a 15-year campaign to limit or stop abortions at several clinics.

The combined case — Scheidler v. National Organization for Women, and Operation Rescue v. National Organization for Women — which the Supreme Court will hear in the term that begins in the fall, raises broad free-speech questions about court treatment of political and social protest, as well as more arcane legal issues.

Organizations as varied as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and the anti-abortion group Concerned Women for America asked the high court to step in.

"Social protest has a long and revered history in this nation," lawyers for Operation Rescue wrote in court papers. "From the burning or hanging of effigies in colonial times, to the temperance activists' disruption of taverns, to the civil rights and anti-war sit-ins of the 1960s and 1970s, demonstrations, even illegal ones, have been both an outlet for dissent and an instrument for social and legal change."

The high court will review whether the lower courts went too far in applying the federal Racketeer Influenced Corrupt Organizations Act to anti-abortion activities.

The Supreme Court has already ruled in the same case that the National Organization for Women and abortion clinics could sue the anti-abortion protesters under RICO. The question now is whether the law was used correctly.

For example, the court will look at whether clinic blockades and violence amount to extortion under the law. It will also consider whether RICO allows private groups or individuals to ask for the kind of far-reaching ban on future conduct issued in this case.

The court limited its review to two legal questions about application of the RICO statute and federal extortion law. It will not consider the legality or constitutionality of abortion itself, nor wider questions about the political or religious messages of the abortion protesters.

The court in 1992 reaffirmed the core holding of its landmark Roe v. Wade decision of 1973 — that women have a constitutional right to abortion.

A Chicago-based federal appeals court last year rejected arguments that the Operation Rescue protesters were merely exercising freedom of speech.

"Protesters trespassed on clinic property and blocked access to clinics with their bodies, including at times chaining themselves in the doorways of clinics or to operating tables," said a unanimous, three-judge panel of the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

"At other times, protesters destroyed clinic property, including putting glue in clinic door locks and destroying medical equipment used to perform abortions. On still other occasions, protesters physically assaulted clinic staff and patients."

The National Organization for Women and abortion clinics in Milwaukee and Wilmington, Del., had sued anti-abortion organizations under the federal racketeering law to combat what they described as violent tactics.

A jury ruled against the abortion protesters in 1998, and a federal judge barred the defendants from trespassing, setting up blockades or behaving violently at abortion clinics for 10 years. He also ordered them to pay $257,780 in damages.

Lawyers for NOW and two abortion clinics argued there is no reason for the Supreme Court to get involved now.

The anti-abortion defendants are masquerading as nonviolent political protesters, lawyers for NOW argued in court papers. The protesters exaggerated the free-speech ramifications of their case, and incorrectly painted the appeals court's ruling as out of step with other courts, the NOW lawyers wrote.

The lower court decision does not hamper legitimate protests, such as peaceful picketing or handing out leaflets, the NOW lawyers said.

The case, which began in 1986, has traveled to the Supreme Court twice before. The court ruled unanimously in 1994 that protesters who block access to clinics or otherwise conspire to stop women from having abortions may be sued under the law created to fight the Mafia.

Updates

Supreme Court reviews punishing of abortion foes
Justices consider whether federal racketeering law can be used to punish anti-abortion protesters.  12.04.02

Supreme Court to bypass First Amendment concerns in abortion-protest case
Analysis Justices turn case into more technical review of whether federal laws on racketeering, extortion can be used as tools to cripple or deter abortion foes.  04.23.02

Previous

Abortion foes lose free-speech claim as racketeering verdict upheld
Federal appeals panel agrees with jury's finding that organizers of clinic demonstrations across the country had violated anti-racketeering law.  10.03.01

Related

2001-2002 Supreme Court term coverage
Analysis and other coverage of the 2001-2002 U.S. Supreme Court term.  11.01.01

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