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Extortion laws don't apply to abortion clinic protests, court rules

WASHINGTON—The Supreme Court said again Tuesday that federal extortion and racketeering laws can't be used to block protests at abortion clinics, this time saying the legislation doesn't regulate violence that's unconnected to illegal shakedowns.

The ruling is the latest development in the increasingly volatile sphere of abortion litigation and legislation. In the past month the high court has agreed to re-hear a challenge to so-called partial-birth abortion laws, and the South Dakota legislature has passed an outright ban on abortion. Both are major steps that could materially affect the debate.

The unanimous court decision Tuesday is on a more tangential matter, but nonetheless ends a 20-year dispute between abortion rights activists and abortion protesters and marks the third time the high court has had to rule on the matter.

The fight is the product of a novel legal approach embraced by abortion rights activists in 1986. Frustrated with increasingly hostile and sometimes violent protests at an abortion clinic in Wisconsin, the National Organization for Women sought a federal, nationwide injunction predicated on the idea that the disruptions amounted to attempted extortion. Their targets were 20 individuals and groups, including Operation Rescue, that had taken lead roles in anti-abortion demonstrations.

Using the Hobbs Act and the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act, NOW accused the protesters of trying to "extort" anti-abortion views from women seeking abortions and their providers.

The claim was initially dismissed by a federal district court for lack of an "economic motive," but was revived by the Supreme Court, which said no such motive was necessary for the suit to go forward.

After a jury found the protesters liable and a lower court issued the nationwide injunction, the high court got involved again, this time saying that federal laws didn't apply because there was no proof the protesters intended "to obtain property" from abortion rights activists. The injunction was lifted.

After lower courts decided to mull whether the Hobbs Act, which prohibits robbery or extortion that affects interstate commerce, could be used as a general restraint against violence, the high court agreed to a third review, leading up to Tuesday's ruling.

In a blunt opinion, Justice Stephen Breyer flatly rejected the broad interpretation of federal law.

The language of the law means "acts or threats of violence in furtherance of a plan or purpose to engage in robbery or extortion," Breyer wrote.

Breyer also noted that the history of the law suggested it was intended to prevent robbery and extortion, not just general violence, and that the courts have interpreted the law much more narrowly than NOW was attempting to do.

"It would federalize much ordinary criminal behavior, ranging from simple assault to murder, behavior that typically is the subject of state, not federal, prosecution," Breyer wrote of NOW's reading of the law.

NOW president Kim Gandy said Tuesday that the ruling "could add to the increasing difficulty women face in obtaining reproductive health services."

She said the court sided with "thugs and bullies, not peaceful protesters."

Operation Rescue president Troy Newman said his group was glad to be able to put the dispute behind them for good.

"This is a victory not only for pro-lifers, who can now exercise their First Amendment rights to speak out about abortion," he said, "but it is also a victory for the women and babies who are entering our nation's abortion mills, who now will have greater access to more information and practical assistance that can help them spare the lives of their pre-born children."

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(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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