Abortion foes face class action today 12-year-old lawsuit seeks to apply anti-racketeering statute

March 02, 1998|By CHICAGO TRIBUNE

CHICAGO -- A federal class-action lawsuit filed 12 years ago charging anti-abortion protesters with a conspiracy of extortion and violence to close abortion clinics finally begins today in Chicago, and its resolution could have national reverberations.

In the suit, the National Organization for Women accuses the Pro-Life Action League and Operation Rescue of managing a nationwide campaign to shut down abortion clinics through acts or threats of physical violence and arson, among other things.

Several of the key players in the suit are based in Chicago, including the husband-wife legal team representing the plaintiffs as well as one defendant, Joseph M. Scheidler, 70, and his Pro-Life Action League.

"It feels exhilarating" to be on the eve of the trial, said Fay Clayton, the Chicago attorney who has been with the case from the start and is representing the class of women who have used abortion clinics or may in the future. Clayton's husband, Lowell E. Sachnoff, recently was put on the case to represent more than 1,000 abortion clinics nationwide.

To Tom Brejcha, a Chicago attorney who joined the case 11 years ago and is representing Scheidler and his league, "there is no other case I can think of that quite involves an entire industry."

Indeed, said Clayton, the scope of the case is unprecedented. And it has nationwide significance for both sides.

Though abortion protesters can be prosecuted now under local, state and some federal statutes, if NOW prevails in the suit, there could be a permanent nationwide injunction against the defendants. They and anyone working with them could be barred from using any method to forcibly interfere with the operations of more than 1,000 abortion clinics in the United States, as well as with women's right to use those clinics.

Also, the federal racketeering law being used by the plaintiffs allows for the prospect of triple damages -- which in this case could include the costs of extra security precautions taken at the clinics.

Anti-abortion defendants say a loss would have far-reaching significance for free speech. Other radical protest groups, such as animal rights activists, also could be sued using the federal racketeering law originally designed to combat organized crime, said Brejcha.

In a novel use of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, or RICO, the attorneys for NOW must prove certain violent acts that have occurred at clinics nationwide -- clinic burnings, vandalism, harassment of staff -- are part of a pattern of racketeering activity engineered by the defendants.

Two lower federal courts in Chicago dismissed the suit on the grounds that the racketeering act applied only to activities motivated by economic gain -- and the anti-abortion groups were not motivated by economics. But the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1994 that Congress had not included an economic motive in the 1970 law and returned the case for trial.

Jury selection in the case is scheduled to begin today and arguments on Wednesday in a trial that is slated to last three to four weeks in the courtroom of U.S. District Judge David H. Coar.

Pub Date: 3/02/98

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