Family Law Prof Blog

Editor: Margaret Ryznar
Indiana University
Robert H. McKinney School of Law

Wednesday, March 1, 2006

Case Law Development: Supreme Court Rules in Favor of Abortion Protestors

The Supreme Court in Scheidler v. National Organization for Women, Inc., ruled Tuesday that the federal Hobbs Act Statute could not be used to prevent demonstrations by anti-abortion protestors at abortion clinics. The unanimous 8-0 ruling ends a case that was initiated in 1991 by health  care  clinics  that  perform  abortions and  a  pro-choice  national  nonprofit  organization  that supports the legal availability of abortions, the National Organization For Women. The case was kept alive by the 7th U.S. Court of Appeals, which held in 2003 that that the laws could be used despite the Supreme Court decision that had lifted an injunction on pro-life defendants in the suit. In the present case, Justice Breyer, writing for the court, ruled that the Hobbs Act only covered threats of violence related to extortion and robbery.

The Hobbs Act says that an individual commits a federal crime if he or she “obstructs, delays, or affects commerce” by  (1)  “robbery,”  (2) “extortion,”  or  (3)  “commit[ting]  or threaten[ing] physical violence to any person or property in furtherance of a plan or purpose to do anything in violation of this section. The dispute here concerned the meaning of the words, “in furtherance of a plan or purpose to do anything in violation of this section.”  If the phrase is construed as referring to violence committed pursuant to plans or purposes that affect interstate commerce through robbery or extortion, the statute governs only a limited subset of violent behavior, namely, behavior connected with robbery and extortion. However, if the language is construed to refer to any violence committed pursuant to those plans or purposes that affect interstate  commerce,  it governs a broad range of human activity, namely, all violent actions against persons or property that affect interstate commerce. 

The Court held that that physical violence unrelated to robbery or extortion falls outside the scope of the Hobbs Act. This  language, as construed by the Court,  means  that  behavior  that  obstructs,  delays,  or affects commerce is a “violation” of the statute only if that behavior  also  involves  robbery  or  extortion  (or  related attempts or conspiracies).

In rejecting the theory that the protests were a kind of “extortion,” the Court noted that in  Scheidler  v.  National  Organization for Women, Inc., 537 U. S. 393 (2003) (NOW II), it stated that the Hobbs Act defines “extortion” as necessarily including the improper “obtaining of property from another.”  It said that the claimed “property”  consisted  of  “a  woman’s right to seek medical services from a clinic, the right of the doctors,  nurses  or  other  clinic  staff  to  perform  their  jobs, and the right of the clinics to provide medical services free from  wrongful  threats,  violence,  coercion  and  fear.”    It declared that “[w]hatever the outer boundaries may be, the effort  to  characterize  [the protestors]   actions  . . . as  an  “obtaining  of  property  from”  respondents  is  well  beyond them.”    It held in NOW II that  “because [the protestors] did not “obtain” property from respondents, [the protestors] “did  not  commit  extortion”  as  defined  by  the  Hobbs Act. It also found  that  the  state  extortion  law violations,  and  other  extortion-related  violations,  were flawed  for  the  same  reason  and  must  also  be  set  aside.  (reo).  You may download here the Supreme Court_abortion_opinion.pdf

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