February 27, 2003


Racketeering Conviction of Anti-Abortion Groups Voided (LINDA GREENHOUSE, 2/27/03, NY Times)
The Supreme Court today overturned a federal racketeering judgment against a coalition of anti-abortion groups that conducted a widespread campaign of disrupting and blockading abortion clinics during the 1980's. The protesters' actions, although in some instances criminal, did not fit the federal definition of extortion that was the basis for the lawsuit against them, the court said.

The 8-to-1 decision ended a 17-year-old case that dated to the peak years of violent demonstrations at abortion clinics, when abortion providers sought a legal theory that would allow them to attack what they saw as a nationwide conspiracy to shut down their operations.

In a lawsuit brought by the National Organization for Women and two abortion clinics, they turned to the federal racketeering law and specifically to the Hobbs Act, which outlaws obstructing commerce "by robbery or extortion." Violating the Hobbs Act on at least two occasions can demonstrate a "pattern of racketeering activity" that entitles the victims to triple damages under the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, known as RICO.

But what happened at the clinics was not extortion, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist wrote for the majority today. Parsing the federal definition of the crime — "the obtaining of property from another" by force, threat of force, or violence — the chief justice said that the protesters had not "obtained" the clinics' property. To obtain property, he said, meant to acquire it and not simply to deprive the lawful owner of its use. [...]

The lone dissenter today was Justice John Paul Stevens, who said the court had adopted an unduly narrow interpretation of the property right that the Hobbs Act protects. He said the statute protected "the intangible right to exercise exclusive control over the lawful use of business assets," including "the right to serve customers or to solicit new business."

"The use of violence or threats of violence to persuade the owner of a business to surrender control of such an intangible right is an appropriation of control embraced by the term `obtaining,' " Justice Stevens said.

One can't help but feel that had Scalia or Thomas been the lone dissenter in an abortion case there would be a flurry of columns about his extremism. Posted by Orrin Judd at February 27, 2003 5:08 PM

Robert Musil, the nom de blog
of someone I suspect is prominent law professor or judge, beat you to this one, with more details: Justice Stevens supports pistol-whipping random victims rather than sifting evidence

He also may be comparing Stevens to another bad judge, William O. Douglas, through a juxtaposition of posts.

Posted by: pj at February 27, 2003 6:32 PM

Well, I liked Young Torless.

Posted by: oj at February 27, 2003 8:46 PM

I like Greenhouse's wording: "Parsing the federal definition of the crime," indeed. Golly, might the words of the statute have something to do with the crime being sanctioned? If Breyer had written this, would it have been "parsing"?

Posted by: Chris Badeaux at February 28, 2003 8:51 AM