Judge rules abortion clinics can't use antitrust, RICO laws to halt protests

June 01, 1991|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- A nationwide effort by abortion clinics and women's rights activists to use two federal laws to stop anti-abortion protests has failed in a major court case in Chicago.

U.S. District Judge James F. Holderman ruled that protesters seeking to shut down clinics across the country are not subject to federal antitrust law and a 1970 federal law against economic racketeering.

His ruling, issued Tuesday and made available here yesterday, ended for the time being a five-year courtroom battle that both sides -- clinics and demonstrators -- had viewed as a wide-ranging test of federal law as a shield around clinics.

The National Organization for Women, which filed the lawsuit in 1986, said it would appeal the decision to the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago. NOW had sought nationwide orders barring demonstrators from trying to interfere with dealings between clinics and pregnant women. It had also

sought tripled damages under both the Sherman Antitrust Act and the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO).

Patricia Ireland, NOW's executive vice president, said that protesters "should not take comfort from this" because NOW would pursue a nationwide legal ban in other cases and would fight demonstrators one place at a time, seeking criminal fines and jail terms in some cases. She said she was "confident" that the Circuit Court would overturn Judge Holderman.

The Chicago case appears destined to reach the Supreme Court. In October 1989, the court left intact a ruling by the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia that allowed clinics to use the RICO law against demonstrators trying to disrupt clinic operations.

Joseph M. Scheidler of Chicago, executive director of the Pro-Life Action League, one of the two main protest-organizing groups challenged in the case, said that "it's fine with us" if the case does go to the Supreme Court.

The other group, Operation Rescue, headed by Randall A. Terry, has already taken a case to the Supreme Court to stop clinics from using an 1871 civil rights law to keep anti-abortion demonstrators away from clinics. The court has said it will rule on that case during its next term.

The organizations have been sued repeatedly over their protests. This week's ruling, Mr. Scheidler said, "is important because this was an attack on the activist movement nationwide."

Judge Holderman ruled that the protesters could not be sued for antitrust damages because their ultimate goal was political, not economic. Seeking to harm clinics economically, the judge said, was "incidental" to the final aim: "legislation prohibiting abortions."

Ironically, in that part of the decision, the judge relied upon an earlier ruling protecting a nationwide economic boycott by NOW designed to advance women's right to equality.

The judge ruled that RICO claims could not be made against the protesters because they were not demonstrating "for an economic motive" to gain money for themselves.

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