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Scheidler v. National Organization for Women (2003)

In Depth


The National Organization for Women (NOW) and two abortion clinics sued Joe Scheidler and other pro-life advocates who conducted protests outside abortion clinics.  NOW alleged that the protesters, by disrupting the business of the abortion clinic,  committed extortion.  NOW sued under a federal anti-racketeering statute (RICO) claiming that the protests were a criminal enterprise with extortionate activities as its means.  Before going to trial, the Supreme Court considered an earlier question in the case.  The Court addressed a question raised by Scheidler in a motion to dismiss the lawsuit.  The question concerned whether the statute required Scheidler and the other defendants to have an economic motive in their protest activities.  The Court held that it did not.

The case then went to trial.  A jury found that Scheidler violated RICO predicated on extortion and awarded NOW monetary damages and an injunction prohibiting Scheidler and protestors associated with him from conducting their protests outside abortion clinics.

The Court now considered the meaning of extortion in the Hobbs Act and the question of whether an injunction was an appropriate remedy.

The Court’s Holding

The Court held that Hobbs Act extortion requires that the defendants obtained or attempted to obtain property.  Because Scheidler did not obtain or attempt to obtain the property of the abortion clinic, he did not commit extortion under the Hobbs Act.   Because the lawsuit was premised on extortion, the Court did not need to reach the question about the appropriateness of an injunction.

The Court’s Reasoning

The Court considered the common law meaning of “extortion” and the meaning of “extortion” in two criminal codes on which the Hobbs Act was based.  At common law, “extortion” referred to a public official’s use of his office to wrongly take money or something of value.  The predecessor codes to the Hobbs Act – the Penal Code of New York and the Field Code – both defined “extortion” as “obtaining of property by another, with his consent, induced by a wrongful use of force, or fear, or under color of official right.”  Thus, the Court said, extortion involves both a deprivation of property and an acquisition of property.

Those codes also recognized a similar but distinct crime of coercion which involved using force, or threats, to interfere with a person’s freedom.   The Court noted that Congress chose to not include coercion in the Hobbs Act.

Applying the law to the facts of the case, the Court said Scheidler did not obtain property from the clinics.  At most, the Court said, Scheidler engaged in coercive conduct and other kinds of illegal conduct, such as trespass which interfered with the running of the abortion clinic business.  But that interference resulted in only the clinics being deprived of their business rights.  Scheidler did not also obtain the business.   The Court said Scheidler’s conduct was not extortion at all and was more like coercion, the separate crime that was not included in the Hobbs Act.

The Court also said that NOW could not proceed with its suit on the grounds that Scheidler committed extortion under state law.  The Court said it would apply a “generic” definition of extortion which would therefore require a claim that Scheidler obtained (or attempted to obtain) property.

Because Scheidler did not obtain or attempt to obtain property, there was no Hobbs Act extortion or state law extortion and therefore no violation of RICO.

The Concurrence

Justice Ginsburg wrote a concurrence in which Justice Breyer joined.  Justice Ginsburg agreed that the Hobbs Act should not be expanded to cases in which property is not obtained.  She wrote separately to emphasize the availability of remedies under the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act of 1994 (FACE).   She suggested that if the Court had ruled otherwise, that other kinds of protestors would come within the reach of RICO.

The Dissent

Justice Stevens authored a dissent.   Justice Stevens disagreed with the Court’s understanding of “property.”  He considered precedent which viewed “property” expansively to include intangible rights.  He concluded that when the abortion clinics’ intangible rights to conduct business were disrupted by the protestors, that the protestors effectively “obtained” the clinics’ business.

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