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National Organization for Women, Inc. v. Scheidler (1994)

In Depth


The petitioners, the National Organization for Women (NOW) and two abortion clinics, sued Joe Scheidler, an organization called the Pro-Life Action Network (PLAN), other pro-life individuals who participated in demonstrations outside abortion clinics, and a medical laboratory.   They brought suit under the Sherman Act, a federal anti-trust statute; the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), a federal anti-racketeering law; and several state laws.  NOW alleged that the prolife protestors, through PLAN, were a “racketeering enterprise” which used protest methods designed to disrupt the business of the abortion clinics.

The district court dismissed the lawsuit. And the Court of Appeals affirmed.

The Statute Under Review

The Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) is a federal criminal statute that targets organized crime.   The statue also allows civil law suits to be brought.  A successful civil claim allows the plaintiffs to collect “treble” or triple monetary damages.  The lawsuit against Scheidler was brought under three provisions on the statute: Section 1962 (a) which prohibits a person who has derived income from “racketeering activity” to use the income to set up an enterprise; Section 1962 (c) which prohibits an enterprise from engaging in racketeering activity and (d) which prohibits a conspiracy to do (a) or (c).

The Court considered whether RICO requires the alleged racketeering enterprise or its activities to have an economic motive.

The Court’s Reasoning


First, the Court considered the issue of standing with respect to the abortion clinics. [1] The Court said that the clinics do have standing because they alleged that Scheidler was attempting to compel (by force) the clinic workers to stop working at the clinic and the clinics patients to not patronize the clinic.  These allegations were deemed to sufficient for Court to conclude that the clinics had standing.

Question Under RICO

The Court said that the plain language of the RICO statute did not require that the protestors have an economic motive.

The Court noted that the statute prohibits enterprises from engaging in “racketeering activities.”  The Court said that the statute defined “racketeering activity” by reference to a number of state and federal laws.  And the statute defined “enterprise” as any “an individual, partnership, corporation, association, or other legal entity, any union or group of individuals associated in fact although not a legal entity.”    The Court said that in both parts of the statute there is no requirement that the enterprise or the activities of the enterprise have an economic motive.

Furthermore, the Court said that the statute’s mention of “interstate commerce” refers to enterprises affecting interstate commerce and noted that an enterprise could affect commerce while not having an economic motive.

The Court noted that the statute emphasized different aspects of an enterprise.  In sections (a) and (b), the statute treats the “enterprise” as a victim of racketeering activity.  In those instances, the enterprise might or might not have a profit motive.  In section (c), the Court said, the enterprise is the vehicle through which the racketeering activity is conducted.  In that instance, the enterprise need not have an economic motive.

The Court refused to give deference to an early version of the Department of Justice’s charging instructions which did require the enterprise to have an economic motive.

The Concurrence

Justice Souter, joined by Justice Kennedy agreed with the Court’s decision but wrote a separate concurrence to address First Amendment concerns.  The concurrence rejected an argument that an economic motive should be required so as to avoid a possible violation of protestors’ First Amendment rights.  Justice Souter said an economic motive ought not to be read into the statute because it would allow protest organizations engaging in criminal violence protection from RICO.

Additionally, Justice Souter said any First Amendment questions could be addressed on a case-by-case basis.

[1] NOW did not bring forth a claim under RICO.

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