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Top court rules for abortion demonstrators

Published Mar. 1, 2006

A 20-year-old legal fight over protests outside abortion clinics ended Tuesday with the Supreme Court ruling that federal extortion and racketeering laws cannot be used against demonstrators.

The 8-0 decision was a setback for abortion clinics that were buoyed when the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals kept their case alive two years ago despite the high court's 2003 ruling that had cleared the way for lifting a nationwide injunction on antiabortion leader Joseph Scheidler and others.

Antiabortion groups appealed to the justices after the lower court sought to determine whether the injunction could be supported by findings that protesters had made threats of violence.

In Tuesday's ruling, Justice Stephen Breyer said Congress did not create "a freestanding physical violence offense" in the federal extortion law known as the Hobbs Act.

Instead, Breyer wrote, Congress addressed violence outside abortion clinics in 1994 by passing the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act, which allows for court injunctions to set limits for such protests.

"It's a great day for pro-lifers," said Troy Newman, president of Operation Rescue.

Kim Gandy, president of the National Organization for Women, said the decision was disappointing.

She said the clinic access act is problematic because it requires abortion providers to seek injunctions "city by city" and turns back the clock to the late 1980s when NOW played cat and mouse with Operation Rescue in trying to anticipate the cities and clinics that abortion protesters planned to target next.

Newman said his group and others have set their sights on the clinic access law, filing legal challenges they hope will lead courts - possibly even the Supreme Court- to overturn it.

Abortion opponents hope momentum is shifting in their favor: Last week, the high court decided to consider reinstating a federal ban on what opponents call partial-birth abortion, and the South Dakota Legislature passed a bill that would make it a crime for doctors to perform an abortion unless it was necessary to save the woman's life.

In the abortion protest case, social activists and the AFL-CIO had sided with the demonstrators out of concern that the federal extortion law could be used to thwart their efforts to change public policy or agitate for better wages and working conditions.

The legal battle began in 1986, when NOW filed a class-action suit challenging tactics used by the Pro-Life Action Network to block women from entering abortion clinics.

NOW's legal strategy focused on civil provisions of the 1970 Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, which was used predominantly against organized crime. The lawsuit also relied on the Hobbs Act, a 55-year-old law banning extortion.

Justice Samuel Alito did not participate in the decision because he was not a member of the court when the case was argued.

Court debates Vermont campaign spending limits

WASHINGTON - Supreme Court justices on Tuesday questioned whether a Vermont law that limits how much money can be spent on political campaigns unfairly curtails candidates' ability to speak freely to voters.

"You're constraining speech. . . . That's very unusual," said Justice Antonin Scalia. "You're saying . . . we, the state, will tell you how much campaigning is enough. That's extraordinary."

The case could have a dramatic impact on how elections are financed and run across the country.

The dispute arose out of Vermont's landmark 1997 campaign finance law, which included a $300,000 spending cap for gubernatorial candidates and lesser limits for other state political contests. Contributions to state campaigns were limited to as little as $200 per election cycle for state House races.

Those challenging the law, including the Vermont Republican State Committee and the Vermont Right to Life Committee, say unfettered spending by candidates is a critical First Amendment right.

"We are talking about speech at the core of the First Amendment," attorney James Bopp Jr. told the justices during oral arguments.

Advocates for the Vermont law say big-ticket contributors and unlimited campaign spending corrupt the political process.

Vermont state Attorney General William Sorrell said the limits help politicians focus on campaigning and their legislative duties rather than on raising huge sums of money.