Abortion-rights advocates told the Supreme Court on Wednesday that some who oppose abortion have joined in a "nationwide campaign of terror" and, like Mafia mobsters, are violating a federal racketeering law.
But anti-abortion activists told the justices that subjecting abortion opponents to the racketeering law would harm their right to political protest.
The National Organization for Women and President Bill Clinton's Justice Department contended that lower courts had wrongly thrown out a NOW lawsuit that had invoked the disputed law against Operation Rescue, the Pro-Life Action League and other abortion foes.
The anti-abortion groups urged the justices to let the suit die.
Fay Clayton, a lawyer for NOW, told the justices that some protesters against abortion had used "forcible, violent conduct . . . any means necessary, including terrorism." She said such people call peaceful abortion protesters "wimps" and are more interested in "mob violence" than in protest.
She said NOW had no objection to anti-abortion advocates who legally picket, pray, hand out leaflets or petition Congress. "When (they) turn to the use of force and violence and the threat of force and violence . . . their advocacy can cross the line."
Clayton charged that the militant anti-abortion groups were "dedicated and committed to mob violence" that forces doctors at abortion clinics and women seeking abortions to surrender their legal rights.
Robert Blakey, the attorney for the groups sued by NOW, likened protesters who block access to clinics to civil rights and labor leaders who led boycotts. He cited the protests of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the civil rights leader, and Cesar Chavez, who started the farm labor movement with nonviolent action beginning in the 1960s.
Blakey helped write the racketeering law as a Senate aide in 1970. He said it was Congress' intent that it could be invoked only in situations involving "illicit gain." He said Congress had specified that the law would not cover the protests then raging over U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War.
He argued that Congress never had intended to stifle political dissent when it passed the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization Act, or RICO, to attack organized crime.
Today, RICO is used in suits involving just about any business dispute. And in a series of prior rulings, the Supreme Court consistently refused to …