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Supreme Court to tackle abortion protests

From Bill Mears
CNN Washington Bureau

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The Supreme Court announced Tuesday it will consider limits on anti-abortion protesters outside clinics in the fall.

The court said it will hear an appeal over a 20-year-old campaign against abortion providers. At issue: whether federal laws against racketeering and extortion can be used against those who, according to the official court filing, organize "sit-ins and demonstrations that obstruct public's access" to medical clinics.

Abortion rights supporters say those laws were the only solution against what they call dangerous, often violent behavior aimed at those seeking or providing abortion. They filed suit in federal court more than a decade ago.

Operation Rescue argues that the case is about free speech and the right of assembly. Jay Sekulow, head of the American Center of Law and Justice, which is representing anti-abortion groups, accused opponents of prolonging a "meritless marathon" suit.

The Supreme Court has been at odds over the issue in recent years. In 1998 it concluded that the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, traditionally used against gangsters and organized crime, also applied to anti-abortion groups.

But five years later, in 2003, the court reversed itself, saying RICO was wrongly used against Operation Rescue and other leaders of the anti-abortion movement.

In the latter ruling the court found that protesters cannot be prosecuted for harassing patients and staff, blocking doors, and engaging in other disruptive behavior.

Writing for the majority then, Chief Justice William Rehnquist conceded protesters were disruptive and may have broken the law, but those acts did not constitute "extortion" under the RICO guidelines.

Because the protesters "did not obtain or attempt to obtain (clinic) property, both the state extortion claims and the claim of attempting or conspiring to commit state extortion were fatally flawed," wrote Rehnquist. And "even when their acts of interference and disruption achieved their ultimate goal of 'shutting down' a clinic that performed abortions, such acts did not constitute extortion."

The 2003 ruling lifted a nationwide ban on such protests and applied to a variety of political and ideological protests. Many free-speech advocates, including some that support abortion rights groups, welcomed the decision.

But with the court's approval, a federal appeals panel took another look at the case and concluded that RICO laws had a broad reach and could apply to anti-abortion groups that coordinate acts of violence or menacing threats, not just extortion.

As far back as the mid 1980s anti-abortion groups began offering "classes" on abortion clinic protest strategies. In the past, the Supreme Court has ruled on just how protests can be carried out at abortion clinics, from specifying what kind of conduct is permissible to the distance between the protesters and the clinics.

In addition to the RICO case, the Supreme Court said it also plans to hear a high-profile case involving access to abortion. A federal appeals court dismissed a New Hampshire law on parental notification because it did not provide adequate exceptions for an abortion during a medical emergency.

New Hampshire officials say existing laws provide for such contingencies.

Both cases could carry political resonance, if a Supreme Court retirement is announced in the next few weeks. Rehnquist, 80, has been suffering from thyroid cancer, leading to speculation he might step down.

Any successor will likely face confirmation hearings that could center to a great extent on that person's views and previous rulings on abortion.

So far, there has been no word on retirement from any of the nine justices.

The court's fall term begins October 3.

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