Supreme Court to define protection of abortion clinics Justices to use N.Y. case to explain judge's powers

March 19, 1996|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Returning to the field of conflict outside abortion clinics, the Supreme Court agreed yesterday to spell out judges' power to keep protesters at a distance from pregnant women.

Less than two years after laying down ground rules on limiting clinic blockades, the justices selected a new case from upstate New York to focus on the constitutionality of buffer zones that surround women and clinic staff members and remain with them as they enter and leave the vicinity of an abortion center.

Since its 1994 ruling on abortion protests, the court has repeatedly turned aside new cases seeking further guidance. It was not clear why the justices picked out the New York case for another look at the issue.

Jay Alan Sekulow, chief counsel of the American Center for Law and Justice, which is handling the appeal for two abortion foes. "We are delighted to be back in the ballgame," he said.

The case could test whether the court is ready to strike a new balance between the privacy interests of women seeking treatment and the free-speech rights of abortion foes when they meet outside clinics.

Although the court ruled in 1994 that judges may impose TC no-entry zone for abortion foes near clinics, it has not settled whether such a buffer area can be put up around individuals, and then "float" with them as they come and go.

Under a 1990 order by a federal judge in Buffalo, a 15-foot zone is created around any pregnant woman, clinic staff member or vehicle approaching or leaving a clinic, and around doorways, driveways and parking lots of clinics.

Only two anti-abortion foes may get inside that 15-foot zone at any one time to try to pass out their message orally or in writing. But they must move back more than 15 feet from anyone who indicates she or he does not want to be approached that closely.

The judge imposed those limits after a series of blockades around clinics in Buffalo and Rochester. It applies to all abortion facilities in the western part of the state.

The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld those restrictions last fall, saying they were necessary to give "a vulnerable group of medical patients some relief from the duress caused by unwelcome physical proximity to an extreme vocal group of demonstrators."

That court added: "There is no right to invade the personal space of individuals going about lawful business."

The justices will hold a hearing on the case next fall, with a decision coming by summer.

In another abortion case yesterday, the court told a federal appeals court to reduce the scope of a court order that requires Arkansas to pay for abortions for poor women despite a state constitutional ban on using state money for any abortions except those necessary to save the life of a pregnant woman.

The appeals court said the state must also pay for abortions for poor women whose pregnancies result from rape or incest. In a brief unsigned opinion, the Supreme Court said that requirement must be limited to cases where federal financial aid under Medicare is available, and must not apply when a state is using strictly its own money.

In another action, the court voted to leave intact the conviction of Deborah Gore Dean, a former high-ranking aide in the Department of Housing and Urban Development, on charges of lying and receiving illegal gifts during housing policy scandals in the 1980s. The scandal involved claims that federal housing funds were improperly channeled to Republicans with political connections.

Ms. Dean was sentenced to 21 months in prison, but a lower court has overturned that term and ordered new sentencing.

Pub Date: 3/19/96

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