WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court gave abortion providers a new legal weapon Monday by ruling that militant foes of abortion can be forced to pay crippling damage verdicts if they are found to have led a campaign of violence and threats against abortion clinics.
The 9-0 decision reinstates a lawsuit filed by the National Organization for Women against Joseph Scheidler and his Pro-Life Action League, and Randall Terry and his Operation Rescue. The suit charges the abortion opponents with leading a nationwide conspiracy to shut abortion clinics through bombings, arson, break-ins and threats.
If the charges are proven, the high court said, Scheidler and his allies violated the federal anti-racketeering law and can be required to pay damages three times greater than the total losses suffered by the abortion providers.
More broadly, the ruling also gives government prosecutors the power to use the law against any terrorist organization that uses violence for political reasons. Similarly, it would permit lawsuits against animal rights activists, environmental extremists or others who use force or violence to achieve their goals.
Most lower courts have dismissed such suits on the grounds that the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act applies only to mobsters, crooks or con artists who prey on legitimate business. Since the abortion foes acted for moral reasons, not for "an economic motive," a federal appeals court in Chicago had dismissed NOW's suit.
But Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, writing for the court, concluded that the 1970 law does not require that criminals be motivated by money.
The law covers "any enterprise . . . individual (or) association" which engages in a pattern of criminal activity, such as robbery, murder, arson, fraud, drug dealing or the use of violence and threatened force.
"Nowhere in (the language of the law) is there any indication that an economic motive is required," Rehnquist said. A targeted group "need only be an association in fact that engages in a pattern of racketeering activity."
Monday's ruling is also noteworthy because the legal outcome is not necessarily in line with the personal preferences of the justices. Several of them, including Rehnquist, have repeatedly expressed concern about the broad reach of the RICO law. While the justices have urged Congress to amend the law, they have also said that they have no authority to rewrite it on their own.
Originally enacted as a weapon to combat organized crime, during the 1980s the law became a favored means of attacking regular businesses that engaged in fraud. The targets included the executives of failed thrift institutions, stockbrokers who deceived customers, city officials who took bribes, even accountants, travel agents and insurance sellers who put their names on misleading statements.
Critics now say that the law has become a dangerous tool in the hands of greedy lawyers.
The justices could have invoked the First Amendment and ruled that a racketeering suit such as the one in this case violates the free-speech rights of abortion foes. But as Rehnquist noted in his opinion in the case (NOW vs. Scheidler, 92-780), lawyers for abortion foes did not raise that issue in this case.
Given previous interpretations of the RICO law, attorneys for Operation Rescue presumably thought that they could win without a First Amendment argument. Now, however, as the case returns for trial in Chicago, the anti-abortion leaders are free to argue that their activities are protected as free speech.
On Friday, the justices also announced that they would review a Florida judge's order that limited anti-abortion picketing near a clinic. A ruling in that case, due by July, should clarify the free-speech rights of the abortion foes.
Leaders of NOW praised Monday's decision and predicted that it could help quell the "escalating anti-abortion terrorism."
"This decision allows us to go after the leaders, the kingpins of this conspiracy," said Helen Neuborne, executive director of the NOW Legal Defense Fund. "We believe we can connect them to these bombings and the other acts of violence."
Anti-abortion lawyers denounced the decision and said they feared that it "may bankrupt not only pro-life organizations but other political activists throughout the nation," said Clarke Forsythe, general counsel for Americans United for Life, who represented Scheidler. Defending itself in the 8-year-old case has already cost Pro-Life Action League more than $1 million, he said.
"We expect a costly abuse of RICO . . . will threaten all activists that oppose various businesses," Forsythe said.
Both the House and Senate have passed bills that would make it a federal crime to block the entrances to an abortion facility. A final version of that legislation is expected to gain congressional approval by spring.
Abortion rights lawyers said that the new measure would permit authorities, including federal judges, to intervene against ordinary protesters who break the law. Last year, the Supreme Court stripped federal judges of their power to intervene in these disputes by ruling that federal civil rights laws do not protect women seeking abortion.