Justices to rule on racketeer law in abortion fight Clinics trying to combat blockades with '70 law

lower courts are split

June 15, 1993|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court set the stage yesterday for a major ruling on abortion clinics' long campaign to defend themselves against violent blockades by using the heavy artillery of a federal anti-rackets law.

Taking the suggestion of women's rights groups with support of the Clinton administration, the court agreed to decide whether the 1970 anti-racketeering law aimed at organized crime -- providing tripled damage verdicts -- applies to attempts by groups such as Operation Rescue to shut down health facilities that perform abortions. Lower courts are split on the issue.

The outcome of the case is important to the clinics, and to blockaders, because of the court's 6-3 decision last fall stripping clinics of most of the protection of federal civil rights law, including a key section used repeatedly against anti-abortion demonstrators.

That was a sweeping victory for the blockaders.

Congress has been pondering bills to overturn that ruling, but it is having difficulty drawing the competing political factions together enough to move such a proposal forward.

The 1970 anti-rackets law thus may be the only legal weapon available for clinics in the federal courts. They could still try to rely on state and local laws against trespass, but those have done little to stop the protests.

The new case, to be heard by the justices in the fall with a final decision likely sometime next year, arose in a series of legal challenges to the nationwide anti-abortion crusade led by Operation Rescue.

A federal appeals court in Chicago, however, ruled last June that clinics and women's rights groups may not use the anti-rackets law to seek damages against blockades.

That ruling conflicts with a decision in 1989 by a different federal appeals court allowing clinics to rely upon the same law.

The Supreme Court in 1989 had left the decision intact without reviewing it. That, however, was before the lower courts divided on the issue.

The law, which is formally named the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, was passed by Congress originally as an attack on mob infiltration of legitimate businesses. It attacks "enterprises" that engage in a "pattern of racketeering." Among the remedies is a tripling of the damages awarded for harms done.

In the years since 1970, the so-called RICO law has been interpreted broadly by federal courts to apply to a wide variety of economic wrongs on the part of businesses.

In the ruling that the Supreme Court will be reviewing, the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals declared that the RICO law could be used against those who blockade a clinic only if they had an economic motive for their actions.

The Circuit Court found no evidence of such a motive for the actions of Operation Rescue and concluded that their goal was to stop abortion as a medical procedure, not as a means of interfering with clinic business operations.

The National Organization for Women and two abortion clinics took the case on to the Supreme Court, and they recently picked up the Clinton administration's support.

The appeal by NOW and the clinics asked the court for "relief xTC from a nationwide criminal conspiracy of extremists who use unlawful and violent methods to close clinics that perform abortions and to prevent women from using the services of those clinics."

The appeal cited a list of hundreds of acts of arson, assaults, clinic invasions and trespasses, along with the theft of the remains of 4,000 fetuses from a laboratory in order to give those fetuses a "funeral."

Those kinds of actions, the appeal argues, amount to criminal extortion against the clinics and should trigger the RICO remedy.

Targets of the damages lawsuit include some of the leading groups and key figures in the anti-abortion movement nationwide: Operation Rescue and its leader, Randall A. Terry of Windsor, N.Y., and the Pro-life Action League and its leader, Joseph M. Scheidler of Chicago. Mr. Scheidler has written a manual on shutting down abortion clinics.

OTHER SUPREME COURT ACTIONS

The Supreme Court took these actions in opinions and orders yesterday:

FINAL DECISION

Affirmative action: The court ruled 7-2 that a trade group of businesses may go to federal court to challenge the constitutionality of a local government's "affirmative action" program setting aside some parts of public works projects for minority-owned companies to perform. To get into court, the trade group only needs to show that its members cannot compete equally for the government contracts. The case involved a Jacksonville, Fla., ordinance.

CASE TO BE HEARD

Gift tax: The court agreed to rule at its term starting in October on a major tax dispute that the federal government says may affect the collection of many millions of dollars in gift taxes. A Minnesota case tests whether gift taxes must be paid on transfers of the right to collect income from a trust set up before that tax was enacted in 1932. The case involves a family trust set up in 1917 by a wealthy St. Paul investor, Lucius P. Ordway, who rescued the Minnesota Mining & Manufacturing Co. (3M) when it was deeply troubled financially in its early years.

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