High court rules for abortion protesters

Unanimous decision ends 20-year-old lawsuit


WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court ended a 20-year-old lawsuit against militant anti-abortion groups yesterday, ruling unanimously that their use of "physical violence" outside clinics did not violate the anti-racketeering laws.

The decision marked the third time this case had been decided by the Supreme Court, and this time, they made sure it would be the last.

In yesterday's ruling, Justice Stephen G. Breyer said Congress did not create "a freestanding physical violence offense" in the federal extortion law known as the Hobbs Act.

Instead, Breyer wrote, Congress addressed violence outside abortion clinics in 1994 by passing the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act, which allows for court injunctions to set limits for such protests.

"It's a great day for pro-lifers," said Troy Newman, president of Operation Rescue.

Kim Gandy, president of the National Organization for Women, said the decision was disappointing because the injunction had decreased violence outside clinics nationally.

She said the clinic access act is problematic because it requires abortion providers to seek injunctions "city by city" and turns back the clock to the late 1980s when NOW played cat and mouse with Operation Rescue in trying to anticipate the cities and clinics that abortion protesters planned to target next.

Newman said his group and others have set their sights on the clinic access law, filing legal challenges they hope will lead courts to overturn it.

Abortion opponents hope momentum is shifting in their favor: Last week, the high court decided to consider reinstating a federal ban on what opponents call partial-birth abortion, and the South Dakota legislature passed a bill that would make it a crime for doctors to perform an abortion unless it was necessary to save the woman's life.

President Bush, asked about the South Dakota measure in an interview with ABC News' Elizabeth Vargas, said yesterday he hadn't "paid attention to that, to this particular issue you're talking about" but "I am not going to prejudge how the Supreme Court is going to judge a particular issue."

However, he said, "My position has always been three exceptions: rape, incests and the life of the mother." Asked if he would include the broader category of health of the mother, Bush said: "No. I said life of the mother, and health is a very vague term, but my position has been clear on that ever since I started running for office."

The lawsuit that ended yesterday began during an era of abortion clinic bombings in the 1980s. At the same time, anti-abortion groups such as Operation Rescue employed "human blockades" to try to stop pregnant patients from entering clinics.

Searching for a legal weapon to combat such tactics, the National Organization for Women sued Operation Rescue and its leaders for violating the federal anti-racketeering law. This law incorporates other federal measures, including the laws against robbery and extortion.

The Supreme Court allowed this suit to go forward in 1994, and a jury in Chicago ruled that the protesters had used force and, on occasion, violence to prevent patients and staff from entering clinics. A judge assessed damages against Operation Rescue and issued a nationwide order forbidding its members from blocking clinics.

Three years ago, the Supreme Court appeared to reverse course. It ruled that the protesters did not engage in "extortion" when they blocked clinics because they were not seeking to take over these businesses.

The justices sent the case back to Chicago, apparently assuming it was over. But a U.S. appeals court there said that because violence was used on several occasions, the lawsuit could continue.

In yesterday's ruling, the justices said they meant to end the case entirely. Because the protesters had not engaged in extortion, they did not violate the anti-racketeering law in the first place.

The court's newest justice, Samuel A. Alito Jr., did not participate in the decision because he was not a member of the court when the case was argued.

David G. Savage writes for the Los Angeles Times. The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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