Joseph Scheidler (BBC News)
The U.S. Supreme Court today ruled for the third time in favor of pro-life activists who were sued by the National Organization for Women for their aggressive demonstrations at abortion clinics.
In its 8-0 ruling, the high court said federal extortion and racketeering laws cannot be used to ban the protests. The case was argued before Justice Samuel Alito took his seat on the panel.
As WorldNetDaily reported, NOW lost its second round in the Supreme Court in 2003 in a decisive 8-1 ruling. The feminist group charged that protests organized by Scheidler’s Chicago-based Pro-Life Action League amounted to extortion under RICO, the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act.
“Naturally I am gratified to be vindicated once again by the United States Supreme Court,” said Scheidler. “I am mystified that I had to go to the trouble and expense of appearing before the Supreme Court three times.”
Justice Stephen Breyer said in the majority opinion today Congress did not intend to create “a freestanding physical violence offense” in the federal extortion law.
Scheidler and the other defendants were supported in the case by an unusual coalition of about activists and groups that included actor Martin Sheen and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, who argued similar lawsuits could be used to stop their efforts.
Scheidler’s attorney Thomas Brejcha said, “This unanimous ruling is not just a victory for pro-life activists, but for anyone who chooses to exercise his First Amendment rights to effect social change.”
The 2003 decision had reversed the RICO charge against Scheidler’s group and vacated a nationwide injunction and damage award of $257,780 on the pro-life defendants.
Nevertheless, the feminist group – which has stated an intent to crush groups opposing abortion – stood to collect $1.2 million in damages and legal fees from Scheidler and his colleagues.
The Supreme Court returned the case to the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals to carry out the 2003 decision, but NOW convinced a three-judge panel to send it back to district court, where the high court’s ruling could be overturned.
NOW’s persistence in the case despite the Supreme Court’s decisive ruling coincided with its stated determination to shut down pro-life groups.
In a 1998 statement that referred to the Scheidler case, NOW’s former president, Patricia Ireland, said, “We will continue our litigation strategy until the terrorists are bankrupt and out of business.”
Ireland also was a NOW attorney working on the case before she became head of the organization.
The Supreme Court said in its 2003 ruling all of the 117 alleged acts of extortion against Scheidler and his group “must be reversed,” including four alleged acts of violence. But NOW attorney Fay Clayton convinced a 7th Circuit panel those four “acts” should be considered separately.
The case was further complicated by the fact the jury in the 1998 trial was not required to reveal which acts it deemed violent. Furthermore, Pro-Life Action League presented evidence, including photographs and news footage, that indicated some of the key witnesses lied.
The case began in June 1986 when NOW filed a federal lawsuit against Scheidler and two other pro-life activists. NOW charged that Scheidler and his colleagues interfered with interstate commerce in an attempt to shut down abortion clinics.
Three years later, NOW incorporated RICO violations into its complaint and expanded the scope to a class-action suit that included every woman in the United States seeking an abortion – past, present or future – and all abortion clinics. Operation Rescue, two members of Scheidler’s group – Tim Murphy and Andy Scholberg – and another 100 alleged “co-conspirators” also were named as defendants.
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