Supreme Court: Abortion Protesters Not in Violation of RICO-Scheidler V. National Organization for Women, Inc

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Supreme Court: Abortion Protesters Not in Violation of RICO-Scheidler v. National Organization for Women, Inc.1-The U.S. Supreme Court held "that petitioners did not commit extortion because they did not 'obtain' property from respondents as required by the Hobbs Act."2 The respondents in this case included the National Organization for Women, Inc. (NOW), a "national nonprofit organization that supports the legal availability of abortion"3 and two clinics that perform abortions. The petitioners were Joseph Scheidler, a coalition of anti-abortion groups known as the Pro-Life Action Network (PLAN), and other organizations and individuals that oppose legal abortion. The respondents brought a class action suit alleging that the petitioners had violated the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO)4 by their participation in a nationwide conspiracy to shut down clinics that perform abortions through a "pattern of racketeering activity."5 The respondents further alleged that Petitioners' activities included acts of extortion in violation of the Hobbs Act.6

The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois dismissed the respondents' claims.7 The respondents appealed and the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed.8 The U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari and reversed and remanded.9 On remand, the jury awarded damages to Respondents and the district court issued a "permanent nationwide injunction prohibiting petitioners from obstructing access to the clinics, trespassing on clinic property, damaging clinic property, or using violence or threats of violence against the clinics, their employees, or their patients."10 The petitioners appealed and the Seventh Circuit affirmed in relevant part.11

The Supreme Court granted certiorari to resolve two questions. The first question was whether the petitioners committed extortion as defined by the Hobbs Act.12 The second question was whether the respondents may be granted injunctive relief under section 1964 of RICO.13 Chief Justice Rehnquist, writing for the majority, held that the petitioners did not obtain property from Respondents and therefore did not commit extortion under the Hobbs Act.14 The majority further held that there was no basis for the conclusion that Petitioners violated RICO.15 The Court thus reversed without considering private injunctive relief under section 1964(c) of RICO.16 The majority opinion reasoned that because the predicate acts supporting the jury's finding of a RICO violation must be reversed, the judgment that Petitioners violated RICO must also be reversed.17

In its analysis of the extortion issue, the Court stated that Congress used the New York Penal Code and the Field Code, a 19th-century model penal code, in formulating the Hobbs Act.18 Both of these sources defined extortion as "the obtaining of property from another with his consent, induced by a wrongful use of force or fear or under the color of official right."19 The Court also referred to an earlier decision "that the 'obtaining' requirement of extortion under New York law entailed both a deprivation and acquisition of property."20 Similarly, the Court construed the Hobbs Act provision in question, as it had in the past, to require both deprivation and acquisition.21

The majority acknowledged that the petitioners "interfered with, disrupted, and in some instances completely deprived respondents of their ability to exercise their property rights."22 The Court noted that even Petitioners' counsel conceded "that aspects of his clients' conduct were criminal."23 The Court emphasized, however, that such interference and disruption did not constitute coercion regardless of the result.24 Even if Petitioners deprived the Respondents' of their property rights, Petitioners did not acquire, or "obtain," the Respondents' property.25 The majority opinion further explained that "petitioners neither pursued nor received 'something of value from' respondents that they could exercise, transfer, or sell. …

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