Justices agree that anti-abortion activists can be required to pay abortion clinics' legal fees.
The Supreme Court piled on more bad news for anti-abortion activists Monday, refusing to release five demonstrators from paying nearly $100,000 in lawyer fees to an abortion clinic they targeted.
The action, taken without comment in a case from Sacramento, Calif., extended abortion foes' recent losing streak in the nation's highest court. It also marked the first time the issue of lawyer-fee awards in abortion-linked litigation had been considered by the justices.
"That the court would let this $100,000 penalty stand is outrageous and sends a very chilling message to pro-life demonstrators," said Jay Sekulow, a lawyer with the anti-abortion American Center for Law and Justice.
The justices let stand rulings that said the lawyer-fees award against the abortion protesters did not violate or wrongly "chill" their free-speech rights.
Last month, the court rejected a free-speech appeal by California protesters arrested for picketing too near an abortion doctor's home.
The court last month also rejected a sweeping challenge to federal limits on abortion clinic protests.
Priscilla Smith of the Center for Reproductive Law and Policy said the string of anti-abortion setbacks was consistent with the justices' previous stands.
"The court was pretty clear (in past rulings) on setting the boundaries regarding the clinic-violence issue," Smith said.
In the past year, the justices have turned away appeals by anti-abortion activists who say they are being wrongly sued as racketeers.
Thirteen months ago, the court cleared the way for the jailing of Operation Rescue founder Randall Terry for contempt of court. Terry violated a court order by helping another man show President Clinton a fetus during the 1992 Democratic National Convention.
The court in 1992 ruled that states cannot ban most abortions, reaffirming the constitutional right of abortion it established in 1973.
The Feminist Women's Health Center operates four medical clinics in Northern California, including one in Sacramento that since 1988 has been the scene of anti-abortion demonstrations.
Some of the demonstrators merely picket peaceably, but others on occasion have blocked the clinic's entrance or harassed its patients.
The center's operators sued in state court in 1989, naming anti-abortion activists Theresa Reali, Murray Lewis, John Stoos, Jay Baggett and Don Blythe, Operation Rescue and others as defendants.
The lawsuit sought to bar the demonstrators from taking certain actions and sought to have them pay all lawyer fees in connection with the litigation.
Operation Rescue and the other defendants did not show up to defend themselves and lost by default. After trial, a state judge ruled against Reali, Lewis, Stoos, Baggett and Blythe.
The judge prohibited picketing within 20 feet of the clinic's entrance, and ordered the five defendants who went to trial to pay $99,106.98 for the lawyer fees incurred by the clinic's operators.
State courts upheld the award.
In the appeal acted on Monday, lawyers for the five protesters argued that they are being punished unfairly.
"There was also no evidence that . . . (they) engaged in any blockades, vandalism, batteries, or other violent or destructive conduct," the appeal said.
Lawyers for the abortion clinic urged the justices to reject the appeal, contending that the five protesters' conduct "exceeded the protection afforded by the First Amendment" and its guarantee of free speech and expression.
They said the five tried to stop patients from getting out of their cars, yelled at patients, thrust literature at them and chased them.