Abortion clinics win legal battle

January 25, 1994|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,Washington Bureau Staff writer Sandy Banisky contributed to this article.

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court, in the most significant legal victory for abortion clinics since the protest wars on their sidewalks reached a violent pitch, ruled unanimously yesterday that the clinics may use one of the toughest anti-crime laws on the books -- the anti-racketeering law -- in suits against blockaders.

The court took only seven weeks to make up its mind on an issue that has been controversial in lower courts for more than seven years. Federal judges were split on whether clinics could use the 1970 law, which allows tripled damages as a remedy for a pattern of criminal acts.

The victory offset somewhat a significant loss just a year ago, when the court had barred clinics from relying on a federal civil rights law to collect damages against blockaders.

Lawyers for the clinics said they were confident that they could now use the anti-racketeering law to get at the national leaders of clinic blockade groups like Operation Rescue and the Pro-Life Action League. Helen Neuborne, executive director of the NOW Legal Defense Fund, said: "These mob leaders may send out their troops to block clinics and harass women, but they can't continue to hide behind the scenes."

On the other side of the abortion controversy, Clarke Forsythe, vice president and general counsel of Americans United for Life, said the decision "may trigger RICO's abuse as a nuclear weapon against free-speech rights." The decision "may bankrupt" not only clinic protest groups but "other political activists," such as those who seek to protect animal rights or the environment or who march against nuclear weapons and war.

The 1970 anti-racketeering law -- the Racketeer Influenced, Corrupt Organizations Act or "RICO" -- was originally passed to help federal law enforcers to attack mob crime. Since then, however, it has been interpreted broadly by federal courts so that it now may apply to almost any group that engages in a handful of criminal actions that fit a pattern.

The court ruled yesterday, in an opinion written by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, that the anti-racketeering law applies to such a group even if its leaders or activists are not acting out of a profit motive. Nothing in the law requires that a "pattern of racketeering" involve an attempt to make money or some other economic gain, the chief justice said.

But the court's main opinion stressed that the ruling had not decided anything on the separate issue of whether anti-abortion protests outside of clinics are protected by the First Amendment, which would mean that the anti-racketeering law could not be applied to some of the blockaders' tactics. No one raised that issue in the test case, Mr. Rehnquist noted.

The Supreme Court later in its current term is set to spell out, for the first time, the First Amendment free-speech rights of anti-abortion demonstrators when they try to close down clinics. The court took on that constitutional issue on Friday; it will hold a

hearing on it in April and rule before summer.

Maryland law

Abortion clinic blockades, a problem in Maryland through the late 1980s, have eased dramatically since the General Assembly passed a law that forbids anyone from interfering with the entrance to or exit from a health facility (not just abortion clinics.)

Since then, people on both sides of the issue say, blockades in Maryland have become rare.

Yesterday's decision will shift the focus of attention on abortion protests to Congress, where the House and Senate soon will begin working on a compromise version of the slightly different bills passed last year giving new federal protection to threatened clinics.

Joanne Husted, deputy director for women's health programs of the Women's Legal Defense Fund, said she would be "quite surprised" if a new law does not emerge early in Congress' new session. She said the Supreme Court decision yesterday "doesn't diminish at all" the need for the new bill.

The new measure "is tailored" for anti-abortion blockades, she said, noting that the Supreme Court had not given any guarantees that the anti-racketeering law actually could be used against blockaders in a given case. The test case has not yet gone to trial, and "there are lots of issues" yet to be decided in it, she noted.

Pending since 1986

The decision yesterday came in a case that has been pending in federal courts since 1986. It was an attempt to mount a nationwide legal assault on the key figures and organizations in the blockade effort, including Joseph Scheidler, head of the Pro-Life Action League, and Randall A. Terry, head of Operation Rescue.

The lawsuit cited hundreds of acts of arson, assault, clinic invasions and trespasses, and the theft of 4,000 fetuses from a pathology laboratory for a "funeral." The two clinics that pursued the lawsuit, along with the National Organization for Women, sought damages from the blockaders under both federal anti-racketeering and antitrust laws. Lower courts had ruled against both sides of that claim.

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