Although other federal laws still protect women's clinics -- the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act is one -- clinic supporters lost a principal weapon in their arsenal with Wednesday's decision.
Writing for the large majority, Chief Justice William Rehnquist said the court agreed to decide the case on two questions: whether protesters committed "extortion" within the meaning of the federal Hobbs Act; and whether the National Organization for Women and various women's clinics could obtain an injunction against the protesters under the civil provisions of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act -- better known as RICO.
Extortion is one of the crimes, or "predicate acts," required by RICO.
A jury had found that the protesters did commit extortion and therefore were in violation of RICO.
But the Supreme Court reversed the verdict.
"We hold that (the protesters) did not commit extortion because they did not 'obtain' property from (the clinics) as required by the Hobbs Act," Rehnquist said. "We further hold that our (ruling on extortion) ... renders insufficient the other bases or predicate acts of racketeering supporting the jury's conclusion that petitioners violated RICO."
Rehnquist said there was no need to answer the question of whether a private party can obtain an injunction under RICO, so that question was left open.
The ruling is a major defeat for the National Organization for Women, and a major victory for the anti-abortion movement. It may also force federal prosecutors to rethink their definition of extortion.
"The ruling went on to overturn decades of case law, making this a banner day for criminal kingpins," said NOW President Kim Grandy. "Tony Soprano would love this decision -- it says you can shut down someone's business as long as you don't take possession of their property."
Grandy added that NOW had used the law to protect women and clinic staff "from a centrally orchestrated violent campaign to close abortion clinics nationwide."
"We are looking at every avenue, including the U.S.A. Patriot Act, in order to protect women, doctors and clinic staff from these ideological terrorists," Grandy said in a statement.
While, pro-choice advocates considered their next move, anti-abortion supporters applauded the Supreme Court's decision.
"This is a great victory for the men and women who've sacrificed so much for so many years to protect pre-born babies," Dr. James Dobson, president of Focus on the Family, said in a statement. "The court was right to say that those who oppose the slaughter of innocent life should not be treated like racketeers."
The Rev. Flip Benham, national director of Operation Rescue, said the Supreme Court's ruling "stopped the enemies of Christ dead in their tracks."
"Today, Operation Rescue is free," said Benham. "Free from the chilling effects of the strong arm of NOW and the U.S. Department of Justice. Free to bring mothers a real choice at abortion mills."
Justice John Paul Stevens was the sole dissenter, and called the majority's opinion "murky."
Stevens pointed to the loss of business by clinics that were shut down or blocked by protesters.
"The term 'extortion' as defined in the Hobbs Act refers to 'the obtaining of property from another,'" Stevens said. " ... The court's murky opinion seems to hold that this phrase covers nothing more than the acquisition of tangible property. No other federal court has ever construed this statute so narrowly."
Stevens said the "use of violence or threats of violence to persuade the owner of a business to surrender control of such an intangible right is an appropriation of control embraced by the word 'obtaining.' "
The "principal beneficiaries of the court's dramatic retreat from the position that federal prosecutors and federal courts have maintained throughout the history of this important statute," the justice added, "will certainly be the class of professional criminals whose conduct persuaded Congress that the public needed federal protection from extortion."
The case before the court began in 1986 when the National Organization for Women and women's clinics filed suit in Chicago against protesters, including Operation Rescue, at the time one of the most active anti-abortion groups in the nation.
In the suit, NOW alleged RICO violations by a loose association known as the Pro-Life Action Network, or PLAN.
NOW and the clinics charged that PLAN was an "enterprise" under RICO and had committed a number of extortion acts.
A federal judge dismissed the claim and a federal appeals court ruled that RICO does not apply to enterprises that have no "economic purpose." But in a landmark 1994 decision, the Supreme Court reversed the appeals court and ruled that RICO does not have an economic requirement.
That allowed the NOW suit to advance for the moment.
The case was heard at the trial court level in 1998. The plaintiffs produced evidence showing numerous incidents at women's clinics over a 15-year period.
A jury ruled for NOW and the clinics on the RICO claim, saying PLAN committed 21 acts or threats under the federal Hobbs Act, and 25 violations of state extortion law, among others.
Acting on RICO's provisions, the jury awarded the two women's clinic plaintiffs triple damages. A federal judge then issued a nationwide injunction against future PLAN protests at women's clinics. When a federal appeals court upheld the judge, the abortion protesters asked the Supreme Court for review.
The justices heard argument Dec. 4.
Wednesday's decision reverses the ruling of the lower court.
(Nos. 01-1118, Scheilder vs. NOW; and 01-1119, Operation Rescue vs. NOW)