This Month in History: Scheidler v. NOW

Photo: Lisa Bennett via NOW

Photo: Lisa Bennett via NOW

This month marks the anniversaries of two of the three Supreme Court decisions in the Scheidler v. NOW “trilogy.”

You remember those cases, right? Of course you do. Well, unless you’re in what is probably the majority of people who tend to remember only the more famous names of sexual and reproductive justice-related Supreme Court cases. Roe v. Wade? Of course. Lawrence v. Texas? Sure. Griswold v. Connecticut? Probably. But, get to any cases with fewer public discourse references and less name recognition, and the response is far more likely to be, “What?”

The Scheidler v. NOW cases generated national dialogue over abortion clinics’ need for legal recourse in the face of increasingly violent protesters.

For most people, the Scheidler v. NOW saga almost certainly falls into “What?” territory. However, in a climate where many abortion providers risk being targets of violence and harassment and where some state governments are systemically working to functionally eliminate abortion access, perhaps the Scheidler cases merit being more well known in public conversation.

Background of the cases: Throughout the 1980s, anti-abortion activists became increasingly violent in their tactics. The Pro-Life Action Network (PLAN), a group founded by Joseph Scheidler and alternately known as the Pro-Life Action League, participated in a number of clinic attacks, some including vandalism and assault. In 1989, the National Organization for Women filed suit, arguing that PLAN’s actions amounted to extortion under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act.

Why RICO matters: In this particular case, private parties seeking monetary relief under RICO may receive triple the amount of damages they incurred. While this is certainly nice in itself, it may also be a more effective deterrent — compared to state prosecution alone — for parties engaging in crimes such as extortion.

Case 1: National Organization for Women, Inc. v. Scheidler – 510 U.S. 249 (1993)

Decided January 24, 1994

In this case, the petitioners — the clinics and NOW — contended as stated above, that the actions of PLAN constituted racketeering and extortion. However, both the District Court and the Court of Appeals ruled in favor of PLAN on the grounds that in order for a group (such as PLAN) to be found guilty of a RICO offense, their activities must have a profit-generating motive, which NOW did not allege.

The Supreme Court ruled in favor of NOW, but only insofar as the petitioners did have standing to bring their claims — not on the claims themselves. A unanimous Court, with a decision issued by Chief Justice William Rehnquist, reversed the Court of Appeals decision, which then allowed NOW’s original case to proceed.

Case 2: Scheidler v. National Organization for Women, Inc. – 537 U.S. 393 (2003)

Decided February 26, 2003

When the initial case did proceed, the District Court issued an injunction against PLAN and its protesting actions; the Court of Appeals upheld this injunction. Furthermore, the Court of Appeals held that patients’ rights to seek medical services and the clinics’ staffs’ rights to perform their jobs did constitute “property” in order to qualify as extortion, and therefore as a RICO-applicable predicate offense.

The Supreme Court, however, held that PLAN did not commit extortion because they did not obtain or seek to obtain the “property” lost by the clinic staff and patients. Rather, they ruled that PLAN’s actions constituted a crime known as “coercion” — a lesser offense that was part of the New York state statutes in question, but that is not a qualifying predicate crime under RICO. Therefore, while the clinics did have standing to bring their claims in court, the Supreme Court ruled that the details of this situation did not qualify as extortion under the Hobbs Act, and thus prevented said clinics from being racketeering victims according to RICO.

Case 3: Scheidler v. National Organization for Women – 547 U.S. 9 (2006)

Decided February 28, 2006

While a number of the predicate acts in the 2003 case were related to extortion, four counts involved violence unrelated to extortion, which the respondents (NOW and the clinics it represented) argued violated the Hobbs Act in their own right. Very simply, the Supreme Court ruled, in a unanimous verdict, that the Hobbs Act does not extend to violence unrelated to robbery or extortion — and so could not be invoked here.

So what does it all mean?

It’s not a clear cut victory for either side.

On one hand, not being able to seek relief under RICO was a setback for clinics being victimized by anti-abortion violence.

On the other, the fact that the case went three times to the U.S. Supreme Court meant it generated a fair amount of national dialogue — and one in which some members of the pro-life movement admitted in court that they had committed criminal acts in furtherance of their goals. Moreover, in 1994 — well before the final ruling but five years after the initial lawsuit — the United States Congress passed the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act, perhaps acknowledging clinics’ need for legal recourse via the legislative branch of government.