WASHINGTON (BP)–Pro-life protesters are not extortionists, a unanimous U.S. Supreme Court has ruled, apparently putting an end to a lengthy legal campaign to convince the judicial system otherwise.
The high court ruled Feb. 28 that a federal anti-racketeering law does not apply to protests outside abortion clinics, seemingly bringing closure to a court battle that began nearly 20 years earlier.
It was the third time the case had been before the justices. In 2003, they ruled 8-1 the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), which targeted organized crime, did not apply to such protests. The high court said the pro-lifers did not violate the anti-racketeering law because their activities did not qualify as extortion under a 1946 measure.
When it was returned to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, however, the appellate judges agreed with the National Organization for Women’s argument that the high court had not addressed four acts NOW said involved threats of violence. The pro-life protesters -– Joseph Scheidler, national director of the Pro-life Action League, and Operation Rescue -– appealed to the Supreme Court, and the justices again agreed to accept the case.
This time, the high court affirmed its earlier decision and ordered the lower court to find in favor of the pro-lifers.
In its 8-0 decision, the Supreme Court said violence, or the threat of violence, that is not connected to extortion or robbery “falls outside the scope of the Hobbs Act,” the federal anti-extortion law.
“We conclude that Congress did not intend to create a freestanding physical violence offense in the Hobbs Act,” Associate Justice Stephen Breyer wrote for the court. “It did intend to forbid acts or threats of physical violence in furtherance of a plan or purpose to engage in what the statute refers to as robbery or extortion (and related attempts or conspiracies).”
Breyer said Congress’ passage of the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act (FACE) in 1994 suggested the lawmakers did not believe the Hobbs Act covered violence or threats of violence at abortion clinics. FACE outlaws the use of force or the threat of force to interfere with a person seeking or providing an abortion.
Supporters of the pro-lifers in the case declared the ruling a victory for free speech.
Southern Baptist pro-life leader Richard Land called the opinion “good news from the Supreme Court both for pro-life supporters and for those who are encouraged when sanity takes hold of our court system.”
“It was outrageous to ever have a court suggest that the RICO laws, which were meant to bust racketeers and the Mafia, should be used for pro-life protesters exercising their First Amendment right of freedom of speech,” said Land, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. “We can take comfort in the fact that this was a unanimous decision. Even the pro-choice justices couldn’t stomach this horrendous abuse of the law against the pro-life movement.”
Jay Sekulow, who represented Operation Rescue and is chief counsel of the American Center for Law and Justice, said in a written release the ruling is “a major victory for the pro-life community and removes a cloud that has been hanging over pro-life demonstrators for years.”
NOW President Kim Gandy decried the opinion, saying in a written statement, “… without strong protections against clinic assaults, the legal right to abortion could become meaningless. If women are too terrified to walk into clinics and healthcare providers are too terrified to keep their doors open, then we will have lost the fight for reproductive freedom even with Roe v. Wade still on the books.”
The case, which began with a NOW lawsuit in 1986, produced a nationwide injunction against demonstrations at abortion clinics and hefty fines against pro-lifers.
Supporters of the pro-life demonstrators have always contended the case was about free speech more than abortion. During the lengthy process, animal rights and disability rights activists, death penalty foes and anti-war protesters filed friend-of-the-court briefs in support of Scheidler and Operation Rescue. Even a leading labor organization, the AFL-CIO, supported the pro-lifers in their latest appeal to the high court because of concern about an adverse ruling’s impact on strikes.
Scheidler said in a written release he was “gratified to be vindicated once again” by the Supreme Court.
“The Supreme Court seems to take the First Amendment more seriously than the [circuit courts] do,” he said.
In oral arguments in November, at least one justice from each side of the abortion divide on the court did not conceal his disdain for the Seventh Circuit’s decision that resulted in the case returning to the high court.
In addition to the 2003 ruling, the justices dealt with the case also in 1994. They ruled RICO does not require an “economic motive” and returned the case to the lower court.
In the high court’s opinion in 2003, Associate Justice John Paul Stevens was the lone dissenter. This time, even Stevens joined the majority.
New Associate Justice Samuel Alito did not participate in the opinion since he was not on the high court during oral arguments in the case. Alito replaced retiring Associate Justice Sandra Day O’Connor when he was confirmed by the Senate Jan. 31.