February 28, 2006

Supreme court rules for anti-abortion groups

By James Vicini

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court sided with anti-abortion groups in a 20-year-old lawsuit by ruling on Tuesday that federal law did not cover the physical violence by protesters cited in the shutdown of health clinics.

The ruling marked the third top court decision in the cases that began in 1986, when anti-abortion groups were sued by the National Organization for Women and others for their tactics, including violent demonstrations to block access to clinics where abortions were performed.

The lawsuit claimed Operation Rescue, the Pro-Life Action League and three of the league's leaders conducted a nationwide conspiracy to shut down health care clinics where abortions were performed.

The Supreme Court justices ruled unanimously that a U.S. appeals court was wrong to send the case back to a federal judge to consider four additional acts or threats of physical violence.

Justice Stephen Breyer said for the court in the narrow ruling that those four instances fall outside of the scope of the law at issue. He sent the two cases back to the appeals court to enter a judgment for the anti-abortion groups.

The lawsuit was filed in response to attacks by anti-abortion extremists who picketed, blockaded, burned down and even bombed reproductive health clinics, as well has harassed and intimidated patients and health care providers.

The Supreme Court first ruled in 1994 that the federal racketeering law could be used to challenge the clinic blockades. In 2003, the Supreme Court reversed the judgment that the anti-abortion groups had committed extortion and had violated the racketeering law.

The case went back to a U.S. appeals court in Chicago.

That court told a federal judge to consider four additional acts or threats of violence, separate from the 117 covered in the Supreme Court's 2003 ruling.

The anti-abortion groups again appealed to the Supreme Court, arguing that judgment should have been entered in their favor and that the case should have been brought to an end.

Breyer agreed. He said physical violence unrelated to robbery or extortion falls outside of the scope of the federal law, known as the Hobbs Act, at issue in the cases.

"We conclude that Congress did not intend to create a free-standing physical violence offense in the Hobbs Act," Breyer wrote.

The Bush administration had supported the anti-abortion groups before the high court.

Congress in 1994 passed the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act, which bars the use of force, threats or blockades to interfere with access to reproductive health care.