February 28, 2006

Top 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

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.