The Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that federal racketeering and extortion laws were improperly used to punish aggressive anti-abortion protesters, lifting a nationwide injunction that barred people from interfering with clinic business.
The court's 8-1 ruling applies to protests of all sorts, not just at abortion clinics.
Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, writing for the majority, said that when protesters do not "obtain" property, they cannot be punished under federal extortion laws.
The court's ruling is a victory for Operation Rescue, anti-abortion leader Joseph Scheidler and others who were ordered to pay damages to abortion clinics and were barred from interfering with their businesses for 10 years. The ruling ends that injunction.
Rehnquist said their protest activity did not qualify as extortion.
That outcome had been sought by activists like actor Martin Sheen, animal rights groups and even some organizations that support abortion rights. They argued that protesters of all types could face harsher penalties for demonstrating, if the court ruled otherwise.
The demonstrators had been sued in 1986 by abortion clinics in Delaware and Wisconsin and the National Organization for Women, which contended that racketeering and extortion laws should protect businesses from violent protests that drive away clients.
They accused the groups of blocking clinic entrances, menacing doctors, patients and clinic staff, and destroying equipment during a 15-year campaign to limit abortions. The demonstrators were ordered to pay about $258,000 in damages.
Rehnquist said there is no dispute that abortion protesters interfered with clinic operations and in some cases committed crimes.
"But even when their acts of interference and disruption achieved their ultimate goal of 'shutting down' a clinic that performed abortions, such acts did not constitute extortion," he wrote.
The punishments were meted out under provisions of the 1970 Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, known as RICO, and the Hobbs Act, a 1946 law aimed at crushing organized crime. The Hobbs Act makes it a crime to take property from another with force.
Justice John Paul Stevens filed the only dissent. He said the court was limiting the scope of the Hobbs Act and limiting protection of property owners in its "murky opinion."
The Supreme Court has previously said that the Hobbs Act should be read broadly, he said.
"The principal beneficiaries of the court's dramatic retreat from the position that federal prosecutors and federal courts have maintained throughout the history of this important statute will certainly be the class of professional criminals whose conduct persuaded Congress that the public needed federal protection from extortion," Stevens wrote.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote separately to say that the court was "rightly reluctant" to extend the reach of the RICO law, which allows prosecutors and private groups to seek hefty penalties.
The issue dates back to the 1980s when large groups of anti-abortion demonstrators used aggressive tactics to disrupt clinics. In 1998, a jury in Illinois found demonstrators guilty of dozens of violations, including four acts involving physical violence or threats of violence.
The court did not address a related issue in the case over whether the racketeering law gives individuals the right to ask a federal judge to stop a disputed activity. The law is most often used by federal prosecutors to go after organized crime figures, alleged conspirators and other criminals.
The cases are Scheidler v. National Organization for Women, 01-1118, and Operation Rescue v. National Organization for Women, 01-1119.