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NOW vs. Scheidler: A timeline of events

Issue: "False witnesses?," Oct. 5, 2002

The National Organization for Women vs. Joseph Scheidler is a federal racketeering case brought by the feminist group against a loosely knit handful of pro-life activists. The case now spans more than 16 years of litigation. Here's a look at the course of events behind the most sweeping judgment against pro-life activists-and, legal experts say, against First Amendment protected activism-in U.S. history:

June '86 The National Organization for Women (NOW) files a lawsuit in federal court in Delaware against three pro-life activists: Joe Scheidler, John Ryan, and Joan Andrews. The suit also names as defendants Mr. Scheidler's Chicago-based Pro-Life Action League (PLAL). In its complaint, NOW alleges that defendants had violated anti-trust laws, and interfered with interstate commerce in their attempts to shut down abortion clinics. NOW's counsel includes the flamboyant and liberal Alabama-based lawyer Morris Dees. Americans United for Life (AUL) Legal Defense Fund signs on as counsel for the Scheidler side. The group arranges for Thomas Brejcha, an experienced anti-trust lawyer, to work with them on the case.

October '86 NOW dismisses the action in Delaware and files a new federal case in Chicago, dropping Ms. Andrews as a defendant in the process.

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November '88 NOW lawyer Patricia Ireland and Chicago attorney Fay Clayton take over as counsel for the plaintiffs.

February '89 NOW attorneys amend their complaint to cite violations of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act, a 1970 law crafted for the purpose of crushing organized crime and illegal drug traffic. NOW lawyers also expand the suit to class-action status, naming as plaintiffs all women who ever have or will seek an abortion in the United States, as well as all abortion clinics in the country. NOW also names as additional defendants Operation Rescue, its founder Randall Terry, PLAL's Tim Murphy and Andy Scholberg, and more than 100 alleged "co-conspirators" to the list of defendants. The complaint alludes to arson and murder without directly accusing defendants of these crimes.

May '91 Ruling that the RICO statute is not applicable, U.S. District Judge James F. Holderman in Chicago dismisses the case. Defendant John Ryan is dropped from the case. NOW appeals to the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals.

June '92 A federal appeals court upholds Judge Holderman's dismissal.

November '92 NOW appeals to the U.S. Supreme Court for a determination of the use of RICO. The U.S. Justice Department, under George H.W. Bush's first Attorney General William Barr, files a brief supporting NOW's right to bring RICO charges.

November '93 At a U.S. Supreme Court hearing, RICO statute author and Notre Dame Law School professor Robert Blakely argues against the application of RICO in the suit. Mr. Blakely argues that since there was no financial gain on the part of the defendants, there is no basis for an allegation of extortion.

January '94 The U.S. Supreme Court rules 9-0 in favor of NOW, saying the RICO statute is unclear on the issue of monetary gain, and that NOW could proceed with its lawsuit.

April '95 Tom Brejcha remains lead counsel for the Scheidler defendants.

November '97 Attorney Clayton's husband, lawyer Lowell Sachnoff, signs on as counsel for plaintiffs' abortion-clinic class.

January '98 Randall Terry signs a settlement with NOW, agreeing not to commit any illegal actions at abortion clinics lest he be subject to an immediate $15,000 fine. According to Mr. Terry, his primary reason for settling was to free himself to run for Congress.

March '98 After 12 years of litigation, jury trial begins in NOW vs. Scheidler.

April '98 The jury holds pro-life activists Joe Scheidler, Tim Murphy, Andy Scholberg, and the organizations Pro-Life Action League and Operation Rescue liable for extortion and racketeering under RICO.

July '99 Judge David Coar issues nationwide injunction prohibiting pro-life activists demonstrating outside abortion clinics from performing specific acts of nonviolent civil disobedience, such as sit-ins.

September '99-October '01 The Scheidler defense submits three different motions requesting that the case be reopened, or the RICO judgment vacated, based on evidence that NOW witnesses had testified falsely. Judge Coar denies the first two motions. Mr. Brejcha withdraws the third in hopes that the U.S. Supreme Court will review the case.

January '02 Mr. Brejcha appeals NOW vs. Scheidler to the Supreme Court on the basis that peaceful, political protests cannot constitute extortion.

April '02 U.S. Supreme Court agrees to review NOW vs. Scheidler. Liberal activists such as historian Howard Zinn and the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals submit friend-of-the-court briefs on behalf of the Scheidler defendants.

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