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Abortion | High court victory lifts "racketeer" label from veteran pro-lifer

Issue: "Looking for votes," March 11, 2006

The U.S. Supreme Court on Feb. 27 handed Joseph Scheidler his second victory in three years over the National Organization for Women (NOW), declaring that he and other pro-life activists are not "racketeers." But Mr. Scheidler, who has dwelt for 20 years in the shadow of a lawsuit that attempted to paint him as a mafia-style thug, is conflicted.

"I really enjoyed being a racketeer," he said, his smile beaming across the miles during a telephone interview with WORLD from his Chicago office. "There's sort of an honor to having done something so 'bad' that the other side labels you a racketeer. Real racketeers are some pretty tough fellows. I've decided I'm going to be a 'racketeer emeritus.'"

Mr. Scheidler's good humor arrives at what he hopes will be the end to a grueling and expensive journey. In 1986, when a flinty feminist attorney named Patricia Ireland headed NOW, the group banded with other pro-abortion activists to advance the legally adventurous argument that Mr. Scheidler, in cooperating with other pro-life protesters nationwide, was in violation of federal anti-trust laws. Unable to make that rap stick, NOW tweaked its claim: The defendants were a violent, extortive mob guilty under the Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) statute of interfering with the abortion business, which NOW ambitiously styled "interstate commerce."

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NOW v. Scheidler became one of the longest-running federal cases in history. At trial in 1998, the plaintiffs placed on the stand a parade of anonymous witnesses and ultimately won a sweeping 12-year injunction that chilled peaceful protests at clinics across the nation. In succeeding years, pro-life attorney Colette Wilson and others assembled a raft of evidence that indicated NOW's witnesses lied about or exaggerated 14 of 17 incidents of alleged violence. Of the remaining three, one involved pushing and a verbal threat, and another was a physical confrontation between a pro-lifer and an abortion supporter. Mr. Scheidler was not involved in either incident, but did on one occasion help vandalize equipment at a Pensacola clinic ("False witnesses?" Oct. 5, 2002).

Mr. Scheidler appealed the 1998 verdict all the way to the Supreme Court-and won-in 2003. But on remand, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals ignored the high court's order to vacate the trial court's judgment, forcing a new round of appeals that culminated in last week's Scheidler victory. Writing for a unanimous court, Justice Stephen Breyer ruled the lower courts had erred in applying RICO to public protest. The court also took the unusual step of ordering "entry of judgment for petitioners" by the 7th Circuit.

The language, Colette Wilson said, was the high court's low-key way "of handing the 7th Circuit its head. The Supreme Court is saying, in effect, 'Since you couldn't figure it out the first time, here's what to do.'"

Scheidler attorney Thomas Brejcha praised Justice Breyer's temperately written opinion. It was the latest in a series of unanimous and legally narrow decisions that Mr. Brejcha said may signal a departure from politically driven infighting on the high court bench. "From a professional, legal standpoint, that's really more important to future high court cases than a sharp rebuke of the 7th Circuit."

As for Mr. Scheidler, the case isn't over yet. In order to pay the $440,000 bond that enabled them to pursue their appeals, he and his wife Ann had to put their house into escrow and borrow money from friends. Until the trial court reverses the RICO judgment and the losing feminists complete the necessary paperwork, the Scheidlers' home still technically belongs to NOW. Mr. Scheidler expects getting it back won't be easy. Nor will recouping hundreds of thousands in legal fees the defendants are due.

Meanwhile, more is at stake than money. After the decision, "someone from the press called me and asked, 'Well, are you going to go back to violence?' It was never about that," Mr. Scheidler said. "Even though I've been exonerated of racketeering, I haven't been freed of this onus of being a violent person. I want my name cleared."

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