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. Continue reading