Dispatches > The Buzz

Sweeter than pie

Supreme Court majority rules that the abortion industry cannot help itself to a RICO-size slice of pro-life assets

Issue: "Press coverage uncovered," March 8, 2003

Pro-Life Action League head Joe Scheidler had been trying to sneak a bite of cherry pie without alerting his wife when the phone rang with the news: The 17-year legal battle that branded him a Mafia-style racketeer, and threatened to consume his home and ministry, had ended in victory. He stuck the pie "back in the icebox." In a decisive 8 to 1 ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court last week reversed a lower court decision in The National Organization for Women (NOW) vs. Joseph Scheidler. A jury in 1998 had found Mr. Scheidler and other pro-life activists liable under the RICO (Racketeering-Influenced and Corrupt Organizations) Act for racketeering and extortion in connection with acts allegedly committed during abortion protests. The financial judgment: $257,000. In last week's ruling, Chief Justice William Rehnquist, writing for the majority, said that protesters who do not "obtain property" cannot be punished for extortion under RICO. First filed in 1986, the case took both sides on a roller-coaster odyssey of victories, setbacks, and appeals. NOW witnesses testified-falsely, according to some court records (see WORLD, Oct. 5, 2002 )-that the Scheidler defendants had committed violent assaults against clinic patients and workers. Following the 1998 verdict, U.S. District Judge David Coar issued a 12-year injunction that effectively quashed such previously legal actions as peaceful clinic sit-ins. Last week's ruling lifted both the injunction and the racketeer label from the Scheidler defendants. Scheidler attorney Thomas Brejcha noted that the court's "bipartisan" majority included Clinton appointees Stephen Breyer and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who normally side with abortion enthusiasts. Mr. Brejcha believes that's because the RICO verdict restricted the First Amendment right of all citizens to engage in grassroots protest. Mr. Brejcha believes the ruling will be the final chapter in the case. Mr. Scheidler said it would "reenergize the pro-life movement ... the injunction has been removed, the damages have been removed, we are free, and the system still works." Does Mr. Scheidler regret, though, not getting that furtive taste of pie? "For the good of the whole, the victory was sweeter than the pie."

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