WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court, giving a measure of legal hope to the beleaguered anti-abortion group "Operation Rescue," agreed yesterday to review the use of civil rights lawsuits to stop the group's blockades of abortion clinics.
In a brief order, the court said it would consider a test case from Alexandria, Va., that raises the key legal questions that surround clinics' aggressive -- and successful -- counterattack against "Operation Rescue" in the courts.
This marked the first time the justices have been willing to rule on the clinics' use of the Constitution and federal civil rights law to thwart efforts to shut down the clinics and encourage their female patients to carry their pregnancies to term.
A final ruling will not come until sometime next year -- probably late spring or early summer.
"Operation Rescue," hit by federal judges with repeated fines and damage assessments and facing financial extinction, has "gone underground" by closing its offices and laying off its employees to try to stop the legal onslaught, according to Wendy Wright, a volunteer spokeswoman for the group in Binghamton, N.Y.
The group's founder, Randall Terry of Windsor, N.Y., said in a statement that "if we win [this appeal], perhaps this will bring an end to the abuse of our civil rights through these unfounded and oppressive lawsuits."
Another leader of the group, Keith Tucci of Binghamton, said the court's action was "a signal . . . that the pro-death industry is finally beginning to lose its grips on the minds of America."
Lawyers who have pursued the wide-ranging court campaign against the blockading group and its leaders said they were troubled over the court's willingness to hear the new appeal.
"This is alarming," said Janet Benshoof of the American Civil Liberties Union in New York City.
"It could lead the court to really limit federal civil rights statutes [in their use against the blockades]," she said.
The clinics' attorneys have relied primarily upon two federal laws in their challenge to the sidewalk crusades: an 1871 law that permits damages when private individuals carry out a plot to violate someone else's constitutional rights, and a 1970 law that permits damages for a pattern of repeated violations of state laws -- such as laws against property damage or criminal trespass.
The new appeal involves only the 1871 law. If the court were to take that away from the clinics as a legal weapon, they still would be free to continue using the 1970 law, as well as to rely upon state laws protecting private property from intruders or vandals.
Most federal civil rights laws are available for use only when some government official violates rights. The 1871 law, however, applies even when the violations are caused by private organizations or groups of individuals.
Besides examining whether the 1871 law applies to blockades aimed at clinics and their pregnant patients, the court will be reviewing the question of whether pregnant women have a constitutional right to travel to obtain medical treatment such as abortion. It is that right that lower courts have found "Operation Rescue" blockade efforts to have violated.
The new case grows out of a series of blockades at Washington-area clinics in 1988 and 1989. As the case reached the Supreme Court (Bray vs. Alexandria Women's Health Clinic, No. 90-985), it involved only the Alexandria clinic blockades.
Meanwhile, the court was asked yesterday to reinstate the Iran-contra criminal conviction of former White House aide Oliver L. North.
Lawrence E. Walsh, the special prosecutor in the Iran-contra scandal, said in the appeal that a ruling last year by a federal appeals court setting aside Mr. North's conviction -- and wiping out parts of it altogether -- raises "issues of enormous practical importance" in federal criminal law.