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Scheidler v. National Organization for Women (2006)

In Depth


The National Organization for Women (NOW) and two abortion clinics brought a lawsuit against Joe Scheidler, a prolife activist and the Pro-Life Action Network (PLAN).  NOW alleged that Sheidler’s protest methods constituted extortion under federal law and that his protest organization engaged in a criminal conspiracy under RICO, the Racketeering and Corrupt Organizations Act, a federal anti-mob act.  NOW brought a civil suit under that law, seeking monetary damages and a nationwide injunction against to prohibit Scheidler’s  protests.

Before trial, the Court considered two earlier questions in the case.  The first question addressed whether a civil suit brought under RICO required the defendants to have an economic motive.   The second question concerned whether the alleged extortionate activities required that the defendants obtain or attempted to obtain property from the plaintiffs.  The Court held that it did.  Consequently, because Scheidler did not obtain or attempt to obtain the “business” of the abortion clinic, the Court remanded the case to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals.  But rather than ordering that the district court (the trial court) end the litigation, the Appellate Court allowed NOW to seek damages under a new theory for the case.   NOW claimed that, though Scheidler’s activities did not constitute extortion, his activities were violent or threats of violence under the Hobbs Act.  The Court now considered whether a claim of violence or threats of violence was sufficient for a RICO case.

The Statute Under Review

The Court considered this section of the Hobbs Act:

[w]hoever in way or degree obstructs, delays, or affects commerce or the movement of any article or commodity in commerce, by robbery or extortion or attempts or conspires so to do, or commits or threatens physical violence to any person or property in furtherance of a plan or purse to do anything in violation of this section.   18 U.S.C. § 1951(a).

The Court’s Holding

The Court said that the language in the statute required that any physical violence of threats of violence must be connected to robbery or extortion.  Acts of physical or threats of violence unconnected to robbery or extortion were not covered by the statute.   Therefore, the Court said that hat NOW could not sue Scheidler based on a claim of violence or threats of violence.

­The Court’s Reasoning

The Court was deciding between two different readings of the statute:  one that limited its scope to robbery and extortion and another reading of the statute which would cover not just robbery and extortion but also physical violence or threats of violence that interfere with commerce.

Writing for a unanimous Court, Justice Breyer said that the statute’s scope was limited to robbery and extortion.  The Court said that plain language, or more natural reading, of the statute supported its conclusion.   The Court rejected NOW’s reading of the statute which would prohibit violence or threats that interfere commerce, noting that the language about commerce is used by Congress to establish its legislative jurisdiction.   The violations of the act, the Court said, relate only to robbery and extortion and violence (or threats of violence) committed to further robbery or extortion.

The Court also considered the history of the statute, noting that earlier iterations of the law were clear that it was targeting not simply violent conduct that affected commerce but violent conduct that affected commerce by extortion and later by extortion and by robbery.

The Court cited supporting case law for it conclusion.

The Court t rejected NOW’s argument using a rule of statutory construction.  That rule provides that every word in the statute ought to have an effect such that no word is superfluous.  NOW argued that the language about threats and physical violence would be superfluous if the language were restricted to robbery and extortion because robbery and extortion already includes violence (or threats) committed in the course of the robbery or extortion.  The Court accepted Scheidler’s position that this language is not superfluous.  Scheidler set forth a hypothetical mobster case in which one mobster commits extortion but his associated mobsters do not know of the extortion plan but commit violence related to the extortion.  The words in statue prohibiting “violence . . . in furtherance” of the extortion cover the associated mobsters.    That language then does serve a purpose in the statute and is therefore not superfluous.



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