WASHINGTON -- Attorney General Richard L. Thornburgh, reacting to complaints that he is playing politics with violence at abortion clinics, declared yesterday that the government will enforce a judge's orders to protect two Kansas clinics even though it thinks the judge had no power to act.
As long as U.S. District Judge Patrick Kelly's order forbidding anti-abortion demonstrators from blockading the clinics remains in force, Mr. Thornburgh said, "we are obliged to and will be seeing that the court's order is obeyed."
He went on to say, though, that the Justice Department agreed with anti-abortion demonstrators' argument that Judge Kelly had no jurisdiction even to hear the clinics' lawsuit against the protesters and thus had no authority to issue any order forbidding a clinic blockade.
The Justice Department stepped into the dispute late Tuesday when the U.S. attorney for Kansas, Lee Thompson, filed a friend-of-the-court brief spelling out the department's view on jurisdiction.
Yesterday, however, the attorney general insisted repeatedly that the Bush administration was not taking sides on the need -- or lack of it -- for protection of the two clinics in Wichita, where repeated Operation Rescue efforts to shut them down have led to more than 1,900 arrests.
The Justice Department's entry into the fight in federal court over those protests has brought a storm of criticism of Mr. Thornburgh and the administration. Judge Kelly himself said in Wichita that he was "disgusted by this move by the United States, that they would now put an imprimatur on this conduct."
Mr. Thornburgh, however, said at a news conference yesterday: "I'm not going to get into an argument with the judge." The attorney general did not answer a reporter's question about Judge Kelly's added comment that the Justice Department action was a political gesture.
President Bush, in Kennebunkport, Maine, said that as a general principle "everybody has the right to protest. It ought to be done within the law. . . . Let's exercise our First Amendment rights, but let's try to live within the law of the land."
Told that Judge Kelly had attributed the administration's action to political motivation, Mr. Bush said, "I can't imagine why. That's an unfair
The charge was echoed yesterday by Democratic Party Chairman Ronald H. Brown, who noted the Republican Party's position opposing abortion rights. That position, Mr. Brown said, "does not excuse the Bush administration from failing to uphold the laws on the books."
The president, Mr. Brown said, could "sell his right-wing views on abortion to the American people next November, but he must not sell out our judges and our constitutional system in the meantime."
Kate Michelman, executive director of the National Abortion Rights Action League, joined in the criticism. The Justice Department move, she said, "is an indication of how thoroughly President Bush has turned over the federal government to anti-choice extremists." The move, she added, "supported terror and lawlessness instead of rights and liberties."
Mr. Thornburgh defended the department's intervention, saying that it was merely making the same plea that it has already put before the Supreme Court in a pending test case on whether federal civil rights law can be used to stop clinic blockades by opponents of abortion.
The Supreme Court has agreed to decide whether an 1871 measure that outlaws private plots to deprive others of their constitutional rights can be used by abortion clinics to file lawsuits against demonstrators who seek to shut down clinic operations.
In the department's view, the 1871 law was never meant to protect women seeking abortions, and thus a federal court has no jurisdiction to hear either a claim for damages or for a court ban against anti-abortion protesters.
The Supreme Court is to hold a hearing on that dispute on Oct. 16, early in its new term.
Mr. Thornburgh said yesterday that the government's view was that legal disputes over protests outside clinics "should be left to the state and local authorities."
In addition to the legal conflict, Judge Kelly said yesterday that he has received death threats and that U.S. marshals are protecting him.