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The U.S. Supreme Court on Feb. 28 unanimously ruled that physical violence unrelated to robbery or extortion falls outside the scope of the federal Hobbs Act. Scheidler v. National Organization for Women, No. 04-1244. The ruling reversed a nationwide injunction won by abortion clinics against anti-abortion protesters. Abortion clinics and pro-abortion rights organizations had filed a class action alleging that anti-abortion demonstrators had engaged in a nationwide conspiracy to shut down clinics through violence and other unlawful acts-a pattern of racketeering activity that violated the Hobbs Act, which makes it a federal crime to “obstruc[t], dela[y], or affec[t] commerce . . . by . . . robbery or extortion,” and the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO). An Illinois federal court dismissed the complaint, ruling that RICO requires proof that the alleged criminal acts were motivated by an economic purpose. The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed, but the high court reversed, holding that the statute “requires no such economic motive.” The trial court jury found the anti-abortion demonstrators to be in violation of the Hobbs Act and RICO, awarded treble damages and issued a nationwide injunction. The 7th Circuit affirmed, but the high court again reversed, holding that while the Hobbs Act defines “extortion” to mean the improper “obtaining of property from another,” the “property” in this case-a woman’s right to seek clinic services and the right of clinic staff to work free from threats of violence-went well beyond what was permissible by the Hobbs Act. The court also ruled that the jury’s finding of a RICO violation had to be reversed, along with the nationwide injunction. The 7th Circuit decided that because the high court had not considered the abortion providers’ alternative theory that the jury’s RICO verdict rested not only on extortion-related conduct, but also on four instances of physical violence unrelated to extortion, the cases had to be remanded to the trial court to determine whether these four acts alone might constitute Hobbs Act violations. The high court granted certiorari to review the ruling. The justices reversed. Writing on behalf of the court, Justice Stephen G. Breyer said that Congress did not intend to create a freestanding physical violence offense. It merely intended to forbid acts or threats of physical violence in furtherance of robbery or extortion. Instead, in 1994 Congress passed the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act, “aimed directly at the type of abortion clinic violence and other activity at issue in this litigation, thereby suggesting it did not believe that the Hobbs Act already addressed that activity.” If the clinics’ expansive view of the criminalization of violence or threats alone were adopted, he said, “it would federalize much ordinary criminal behavior, ranging from simple assault to murder, behavior that typically is the subject of state, not federal, prosecution.”
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