Extortion Contortions

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Today the Supreme Court unanimously ruled (with Sam Alito sitting out, since he was not on the Court when the case was argued) that the Racketeer Influence and Corrupt Organizations Act cannot be used to sue abortion clinic protesters. It's about time. This case has been running for two decades, and it has been to the Court twice before. Finally the Court has unequivocally stated that the use or threat of force to prevent abortions does not amount to "extortion" under the Hobbs Act and therefore cannot be cited as the basis for alleging a "pattern of racketeering activity" under RICO.

As I've said before, protesters 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. (As of 1994, they also can prosecuted or sued under the Federal Access to Clinic Entrances Act, itself a questionable exercise of federal power, but one Congress presumably would not have bothered with if it thought RICO already had the area covered.) 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.

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  1. Oh, goodie! ANOTHER abortion thread! I can hardly wait!

  2. I skipped the last one. Guess I didn’t miss much?

    Anyway, this isn’t really about abortion, but about the correct application of the law, and even though I’m pro-legal abortion, I agree fully with this Supreme Court decision against those ostensibly on “my” side.

  3. I skipped the last one. Guess I didn’t miss much?

    Nope, my opponents continue to be dishonest, scoundrelish weasels. Nothing new there… 😉

  4. I am glad that SCOTUS shot this sucker down. Bad application of a bad law does not make either the law nor the application correct. I have my doubts about RICO as it stands anyway but this case was just ridiculous.

    Disclaimer: I am pro-choice (though I favor adoption over abortion).

  5. When this whole using-RICO-versus-Operation Rescue thing started, everytime one of my liberal friends would comment about what a great idea it was, I’d point out to them that the same law could be used against Greenpeace.

  6. RICO is a hydra that would consume the entire justice system is DOJ had its way. Thank God the court at least choped a tenticle off.

  7. I don’t think the hydra had tentacles, and if you’re referring to its heads, they grew back after being chopped off.

  8. Wow, what a dishonest description of the underlying facts, Jacob. Yes, this about a bunch of independently acting people who just happened to all belong to the same national group. Not.

    The case is about a nationwide conspiracy by a group, whose members acted in concert, an in accordance with the directions from the leadership.

    Operation Rescue wasn’t engaged in racketeering because they weren’t extorting anything of monetary value, NOT because of the lack of a directed conspiracy.

  9. I skipped the last one. Guess I didn’t miss much?

    You missed a doozy. Here’s Crimethink’s solution to solving the problem of unwanted pregnancies:

    you’re assuming that abstinence, 100% effective at preventing such “accidents”, is either impossible or so terrible a sacrifice that the killing of an unborn child pales in comparison.

    Don’t want kids? Simple–just go without sex for your whole entire life!

  10. joe,
    I almost agree with you (scary). You’re right…

    Operation Rescue wasn’t engaged in racketeering because they weren’t extorting anything of monetary value, NOT because of the lack of a directed conspiracy.

    But I don’t think Jacob was trying to say that there was a lack of conspiracy.

  11. RICO and all such “catch-all” laws are evil. Incidentally, joe’s point doesn’t lend much to a RICO case (since the extortion/intimidation component was tossed), but it does leave open charges of conspiracy and, of course, charges for the underlying crimes that were committed. Stuff like this belongs in state court. Federal criminal law (beyond a few areas) is another bad idea.

  12. smalls,

    It was this turn of phrase that I objected to: “Suing the leaders of anti-abortion groups under RICO because some of their followers break the law…”

    Operation Rescue’s leadership wasn’t being sued “because some of their followers break the law.” They were being sued because they ran an organization that operated by breaking the law, and because they directed their subordinates to break the law as part of their business.

  13. joe,
    Point taken. It really is scaring me that I’m agreeing with you in this post.
    Just out of curiousity….Do you think RICO is a good law?

  14. smalls,

    I haven’t put a lot of thought into it, but it makes sense to me that the feds should have the power to prosecute conspiracies that cross state borders.

    It also makes sense to me that running a criminal organization should be a crime in and of itself, even if you maneuver to make sure that you don’t get your own hands dirty.

  15. I don’t know the history of the whole case and I have no intention of reviewing it, but I have a hard time believing the the NOW folks would have held off on the RICO lawsuit even if they didn’t think there was some organization to the anti-abortion protestors. I don’t think that was even a factor in their decision making process. They saw an opportunity to misuse a law to suppress political opposition to their cause and did their best to take advantage of it. Of course, that’s true of countless other special interests (and corporations, for that matter), but that doesn’t make it less significant here. And this is precisely the same way that McCain-Feingold will be abused for many years to come by people all over the political spectrum. The only solution to this sort of problem is to drastically reduce the amount of power government has, but that’s not going to happen any time soon.

  16. RICO is one of the most overbroad and ambiguous pieces of legislation ever drafted, based on what I’ve seen. I have no love for the Randall Terrys of the world, but that does not excuse the misapplication of federal criminal law to them.

    Joe: I haven’t put a lot of thought into it, but it makes sense to me that the feds should have the power to prosecute conspiracies that cross state borders.

    State criminal law can be enforced across state borders. In other words, if the Operation Rescue folks conspire to have their representatives in my state break some state law (trespassing, assault, etc.), then my state can criminally prosecute the leaders of OR for conspiracy, regardless of where they reside. Thus, there really is no extraterritorial issue that would justify federal involvement.

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