The Supreme Court overturned by a vote of 8-1 a successful lawsuit brought against anti-abortion protesters under the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corruption Organizations Act.
The National Organization of Women successfully sued Joseph M. Scheidler using the civil lawsuit provisions of the RICO act. NOW argued in court that anti-abortion activists who protested at clinics were in essence not simply practicing civil disobedience, but in fact formed a criminal conspiracy aimed at extorting legitimate business enterprise.
Chief Justice Rehnquist, writing in the majority opinion, said of this novel legal theory,
There is no dispute in these cases that petitioners interfered with, disrupted, and in some instances completely deprived respondents of their ability to exercise their property rights. Likewise, petitioners’ counsel readily acknowledged at oral argument that aspects of his clients’ conduct were criminal. But even when their acts of interference and disruption achieved their ultimate goal of “shutting down” a clinic that performed abortions, such acts did not constitute extortion because petitioners did not “obtain” respondents’ property. Petitioners may have deprived or sought to deprive respondents of their alleged property right of exclusive control of their business assets, but they did not acquire any such property. Petitioners neither pursued nor received “something of value from” respondents that they could exercise, transfer, or sell.
This ruling will likely mean an end to any remaining efforts to use RICO against animal rights activists. The court is pretty clear that whatever else the activities of a group like Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty might be, it doesn’t make sense to describe them as extortion.
In a brief concurring opinion, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg points to where opponents of animal rights extremism should look as a model — Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act of 1994. This act provides additional criminal and civil penalties for individuals and groups who block access to clinics. In effect, the law says that organized efforts to deny women access to abortion clinics constitutes a crime of serious enough nature that it needs to be prosecuted as more than a simple trespassing or disturbing the peace.
The Supreme Court has turned away all challenges to the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act that have reached it, and thus it would serve well as model legislation designed to more effectively deal with organized criminal acts against animal enterprises.
High court overturns ruling in abortion case. Elliott Blackburn, The Daily Texan, February 27, 2003.
Extortion law ruled invalid in protest case. Joan Biskupic, USA Today, February 27, 2003.
Protection for protesters. John Leon, U.S. News & World Report, March 10, 2003.