High Court Steps Into Abortion Dispute

The Supreme Court on Tuesday intervened again in a long-running fight over protests outside abortion clinics (search).

Justices said they will consider whether an anti-abortion group's campaign against abortions, conducted outside these clinics 20 years ago, may have violated federal racketeering and extortion laws.

The court has already dealt with the same case several times before. Most recently justices ruled in 2003 that the laws were wrongly used against anti-abortion leader Joseph Scheidler (search) and others.

That ruling, written by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist (search), lifted a nationwide ban on protests that interfere with abortion clinic business.

An appeals court, however, questioned whether the ban should be renewed on other legal grounds.

The announcement Tuesday came as justices resolved about 20 cases that were still pending from their term. The court met for the last time Monday before beginning a three-month break.

The abortion case is one of two to reach the Supreme Court recently. A month ago, the court in a surprise announcement said that it would hear an appeal involving a parental notification law from New Hampshire. Both cases will be argued late this year.

As part of the 1998 ban, anti-abortion demonstrators were barred from trespassing, setting up blockades or behaving violently at abortion clinics for 10 years.

Although the case does not directly involve abortion, it does address an issue important to people who want to protest at clinics without the fear of lawsuits and large damage awards.

The National Organization for Women and abortion clinics filed suit to stop protests with a federal law originally intended to target mobsters. Abortion providers claimed that a coordinated effort to close down or disrupt clinics in several cities in the 1980s went far beyond the actions of individual protesters, and should be treated much like organized crime.

Protesters were accused of menacing doctors, roughing up patients and trashing clinics.

Rehnquist conceded in 2003 that abortion protesters interfered with clinic operations and in some cases committed crimes. But he said because they did not extort money or valuables from the clinics, a lower court had wrongly imposed a ban on protests.

The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago then renewed the case on other grounds, that the threats of violence, or violent acts, may have been enough to qualify to sue under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act.

NOW attorney Fay Clayton, in papers filed with the Supreme Court, cited several examples of violence during protests, including one in which a patient was beaten unconscious with an anti-abortion sign.

Jay Sekulow, representing Operation Rescue, told justices "this court put a definitive end to a meritless marathon civil RICO suit," in 2003 and should intervene now to make that clear.

The dispute has been to the Supreme Court several times. The court first ruled that the RICO law could be applied to abortion protesters. Then justices decided that the law, which requires a conclusion that someone has committed an underlying crime, was improperly used in this particular case.

The cases are Scheidler v. National Organization for Women, 04-1244, and Operation Rescue v. National Organization for Women, 04-1352.