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Tuesday, February 28, 2006 

Unanimous Court Backs Abortion Protesters

The Supreme Court ruled unanimously today that the Hobbs Act doesn't prohibit acts of or threats of violence. Previously, abortion clinics had won a legal victory against protesters, claiming that the protesters' violence and threats of violence were intended to shut down the clinics. The clinics argued that this provided a legal basis for a claim that the protesters were violating the RICO law. From the AP article...
Anti-abortion groups brought the appeal after the 7th Circuit had asked a trial judge to determine whether a nationwide injunction could be supported by charges that protesters had made threats of violence absent a connection with robbery or extortion.

The 8-0 decision ends a case that the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals had kept alive despite a 2003 decision by the high court that lifted a nationwide injunction on anti-abortion groups led by Joseph Scheidler and others.

Writing for the majority, Justice Stephen Breyer said Congress did not intend to create "a freestanding physical violence offense" in the federal extortion law known as the Hobbs Act.
Justice Alito didn't take part in the case because it was argued before he was confirmed to the Court.

Unanimous decisions from the Court are not uncommon. The overwhelming majority of cases are decided unanimously. The general public usually doesn't hear about them because they tend to be quite dull legal issues. I have been surprised that certain cases have come down unanimously this term. I was surprised at the unanimity in Ayotte as well as in O Centro. I'm not sure if my instincts are just wrong and that these issues are as clear as the Court thinks they are. Maybe the new Chief Justice is a good consensus builder. This case can probably be chalked up to being a clear, but not exactly dull, legal issue though.

The opinion is here, in case you are interested. It's a fairly typical Breyer opinion. I don't agree with the guy often, but he's a clear, concise, and readable writer.

EDIT: Jacob Sullum of Hit and Run chimes in with this...
[P]rotesters who trespass, block entrances, assault patients or customers, or commit vandalism can and should be prosecuted under state law and/or sued for damages in state court... Suing the leaders of anti-abortion groups under RICO because some of their followers break the law smacks of an attempt to intimidate them into silence, a tactic with chilling implications for controversial speech across the political spectrum.
Sounds reasonable to me.

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