Defining Extortion: RICO, Hobbs, and Statutory Interpretation in Scheidler V. National Organization for Women, Inc., 123 S. Ct. 1057 (2003)

Article excerpt

   I. FACTS & PROCEDURAL HISTORY                955
   A. NOW v. Scheidler: Round One               956
   B. NOW v. Scheidler: Round Two               957
   II. THE SUPREME COURT DECISION               958
   III. COMMENT                                 963
   A. Defining Extortion:
     What Constitutes "Obtaining"?              964
   B. What is RICO's Purpose Anyway?            966
   C. Catching the Court in a Contradiction?    969
   IV. CONCLUSION                               971

The Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) (1) has recently become the preferred legal weapon for establishing criminal and civil liability in a panoply of situations involving allegedly extortionate conduct. (2) Prosecutions for extortion under RICO originally targeted so-called "organized crime enterprises" that intimidate legitimate business owners for money. Increasingly, RICO has been applied more expansively, most notably as a tool for alleging extortion against pro-life protesters who block access to abortion clinics. (4) As a result, many organizations, representing perspectives from the entire political spectrum, have become alarmed that the threat of civil RICO litigation might inhibit their ability to engage in political and social protest. (5) Some jurists have even worried that it would seem to follow logically from this expansive interpretation of extortion under RICO that the protesting of invidious racial discrimination and segregated restaurants using "sit-down" demonstrations during the Civil Rights Movement would have constituted extortion. (6) Addressing this ambiguity regarding the definition of extortion, the Supreme Court, in Scheidler v. National Organization for Women, Inc., (7) held that petitioners, Joseph Scheidler and a coalition of pro-life activists, did not commit extortion because they did not obtain property from respondents as required by the Hobbs Act. (8) That is, an extortionate act cannot occur unless the offending party actually acquires the victim's property. (9) In clarifying the definition of extortion, the Supreme Court ensured that the legal system will be able to draw a reasonable distinction between organized criminals who acquire money by force and civil rights leaders, pro-life activists, and future protesters whose objectives are not profit but the promulgation of their political messages.


The Supreme Court's decision in Scheidler is the final battle of a tumultuous seventeen-year litigation war waged between the National Organization for Women (NOW) and pro-life activists. The case, initiated in 1986 in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, first reached the Supreme Court in 1994. The case was remanded to the trial court, which awarded treble damages of over $257,000 (10) and granted a nationwide injunction against the protesters. (11) The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court's decision in favor of NOW, and the case was again appealed to the United States Supreme Court in 2002.

U.S. 1057 (2003). See also Matthew C. Blickensderfer, Note, Unleashing RICO, 17 HARV. J.L. & PUB. POL'Y 867, 886 n.104 (1994) ("Had RICO ... been conceived in the 1960s, it is possible that RICO could have been used against the civil rights movement."). For a sample of cases during the Civil Rights Movement in which "sit-in" protesters were eventually exonerated but might have been convicted for extortion under RICO, see e.g., Bell v. Maryland, 378 U.S. 226 (1964) (vacating judgment against students arrested for criminal trespass after "sit-in" demonstration at privately-owned restaurant that refused to serve members of their race); Lombard v. Louisiana, 373 U.S. 267 (1963) (reversing criminal convictions of students who refused to leave having been denied service at refreshment counter); Garner v. Louisiana, 368 U.S. 157 (1961) (reversing defendants' convictions for engaging in "sit-in" and refusing to leave lunch counters that were reserved for people of another race). …


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