Women's groups join fight over abortion clinic protests Circuit court urged to back judge's order

August 16, 1991|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- Women's rights groups, accusing the Bush administration of choosing to "side with the mob," moved yesterday to defend federal judges' power to protect abortion clinics from blockades by anti-abortion demonstrators.

A week after the Justice Department stepped into the court battle over attempts by a group known as "Operation Rescue" to shut down two Wichita clinics, four groups that support women's abortion rights asked a federal appeals court to let them get involved, too.

Those groups also sought to blame Kansas and Wichita officials for "declining to enforce state and local law in an energetic manner." Thus, they contended in court filings yesterday, "it falls to the [federal] judiciary to defend the rule of law."

Seeking to act as a "friend of the court" in favor of federal judges' power, just as the Justice Department is acting in that capacity on the other side, were the National Organization for Women, the American Civil Liberties Union's Reproductive Freedom Project, the Planned Parenthood Federation and the National Abortion Rights Action League.

Their lawyers sent the legal papers to the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver, which is considering a request by Operation Rescue to wipe out an anti-blockade order issued earlier this month by U.S. District Judge Patrick F. Kelly of Wichita. The Justice Department has said it supports Operation Rescue's view that Judge Kelly had no authority to act.

The appeals court, by asking lawyers to file their written arguments this week, has indicated that it intends to act swiftly in the Wichita case. Ultimately, however, it is expected to take a ruling by the Supreme Court itself to clarify the question of federal court power.

The justices have already agreed to rule during their coming term on one aspect of federal law surrounding clinic blockades, and they are likely to get a chance to rule in that term on the Wichita case as well.

None of those cases, though, will require the Supreme Court to give its current view on women's constitutional right to abortion or the basicquestion of whether Roe vs. Wade -- the 1973 abortion rights ruling -- should be overturned.

The state of Louisiana, however, is taking one step today, and plans another next week, to try to test Roe vs. Wade directly before the Supreme Court, as quickly as possible.

Today, a spokesman for the state said, state lawyers formally will ask the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to grant speedy review of the constitutionality of a strict new state anti-abortion law -- ruled unconstitutional by a federal judge in New Orleans last week.

Then, next week, the state is expected to take the out-of-the-ordinary step of asking the Supreme Court to take on the case itself, bypassing the 5th Circuit Court.

In the Wichita clinic protest case, the sole issue now in the Circuit Court in Denver is whether Judge Kelly has any power to act. Operation Rescue, with Justice Department support, contends that the authority to deal with blockades of clinics remains solely with state and local courts.

The women's rights groups told the Circuit Court yesterday that federal courts have a wide range of authority to deal with "sustained acts of lawlessness designed to prevent the equal enjoyment of the rule of law."

Operation Rescue, those groups contended, has sought to "overwhelm the capacity of local law enforcement officials to enforce state laws against trespass and assault. . . . This case, therefore, poses the stark issue of the power of a federal court to respond to a direct challenge to the rule of law."

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