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Supreme Court reviews punishing of abortion foes

By The Associated Press

12.04.02

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WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court is considering whether a federal racketeering law — intended to combat corruption — can be used to punish anti-abortion protesters.

The justices will revisit a case they first dealt with nine years ago when they ruled that anti-abortion groups and demonstrators could be sued in a private lawsuit under the 32-year-old Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, known as RICO.

The case being argued today raises free-speech questions about violent or threatening political and social protests. While it does not involve the constitutionality of abortion, emotion from abortion rights supporters and foes has spilled into court filings.

The Supreme Court is hearing 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 businesses for 10 years.

The groups were sued by the National Organization for Women and abortion clinics in Milwaukee and Wilmington, Del., over what they described as violent tactics. The anti-abortion groups also were accused of extortion under another law, the Hobbs Act.

Lower courts found that the 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. They were ordered to pay $257,780 in damages.

Scheidler said if the Supreme Court overturns a decision against the protesters, it will be a victory for the anti-abortion movement and will ensure that groups of all types can demonstrate without risk of RICO prosecution.

"One of the most beautiful things about this country is we can protest our grievances. That is a trademark of America," Scheidler said.

Dozens of organizations and individuals have chosen sides. Actor Martin Sheen, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and four states are among supporters of the protesters. On the other side are nine states, several prosecutor groups, abortion-clinic bombing victim Emily Lyons, and others.

"Those who plant bombs or use clubs, fists, violent blockades, or nefarious means to express their dissent ... are criminals who should be punished as criminals, however sincere their beliefs," the Court was told in a filing on behalf of Lyons, a clinic nurse injured in Birmingham, Ala., in 1998.

Justices must differentiate between protected political activity and that which is illegal. The ruling is expected before next summer.

The cases are Scheidler v. National Organization for Women, 01-1118, and Operation Rescue v. National Organization for Women, 01-1119.

Update

Abortion-protest issue before Court boils down to protected assembly vs. illegal acts
Disagreeing with Solicitor General Theodore Olson's argument that 'the First Amendment is not an issue in this case,' Justice Anthony Kennedy replies, 'There's always a First Amendment implication in a protest case.'  12.05.02

Previous

High court to hear appeal from anti-abortion protesters
Justices will review whether lower courts went too far in applying the federal Racketeer Influenced Corrupt Organizations Act to anti-abortion activities.  04.22.02

Related

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

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

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