Magazine article National Catholic Reporter

Future of Nonviolent Protest Said to Hinge on Appeal to High Court. (Nation)

Magazine article National Catholic Reporter

Future of Nonviolent Protest Said to Hinge on Appeal to High Court. (Nation)

Article excerpt

An appeal is being pressed before the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn a 1998 lower court decision that threatens the future of nonviolent protest in the United States.

If the appeal is lost, it means the nonviolent protests that marked the social transformations achieved by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., by Dorothy Day or by Cesar Chavez -- or, for example, the demonstrations by protesters at the School of the Americas -- could be classified as racketeering and punished with triple damage suits.

Many who oppose what they see as Bush administration inroads into civil liberties have paid scant attention to this case, however, because the case's starting point -- in 1986 -- centers on nonviolent antiabortion protests outside abortion clinics.

Those concerned about the consequences of the 1998 lower court decision in National Organization of Women v. Joseph Scheidler et al include such activist groups as the Seamless Garment Network, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Catholic Worker houses and Sojourners, an evangelical-inspired community in Washington.

More than 40 individuals and two-dozen organizations have joined the case as amici curiae, "friends of the court." The Supreme Court justices have not yet said whether they will hear an appeal.

The Scheidler in the case is Joseph Scheidler, a nonviolent activist and Chicago-based executive director of the Pro-Life Action League. He, Timothy Murphy and Andrew Scholberg, plus the Pro-Life Action League and Operation Rescue, were accused in a 1986 class-action suit led by the National Organization of Women, NOW, with violating the 1970 Racketeer-Influenced Corrupt Organizations law, called RICO, by using forcible blockades and the threat of violence to close down abortion clinics nationwide.

NOW's argument was that blockading clinic doors and harassing women using the clinics was a national conspiracy.

Quite simply, NOW wanted to force Scheidler, the Pro-Life Action League and Operation Rescue out of business by bankrupting them. RICO's use in the case was upheld in 1994 by the Supreme Court, and, in April 1998, a six-person jury in Chicago federal court found for NOW, with damages of $83,000. That amount quickly became $258,000 (including interest) as RICO laws permit tripling of damages. More than 1,000 U.S. abortion clinics could make claims against the defendants.

Following the 1998 decision, Chicago's Cardinal Francis George commented, "If the courts had been used to stop organized sit-ins at lunch counters through the South in the '60s there would have been no civil rights movement."

To date not a penny has been paid because the Chicago ruling has been in abeyance during appeal. Tom Brejcha, the lawyer for Scheidler and the other defendants, said with appeal papers now filed, the clerks to the Supreme Court justices will provide a memoranda "as to whether this case is worthy of review. …

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