Justices to Rule on Abortion Protesters : Supreme Court: Case stems from Operation Rescue blockades of clinics. At issue is whether civil rights of facilities’ patients were violated.


The Supreme Court, entering the battle between Operation Rescue and the nation’s abortion clinics, said Monday that it will decide whether protesters who block medical facilities can be charged with violating federal civil rights laws.

A high court ruling, due next year, may determine whether federal judges can issue broad orders preventing protesters from disrupting the operation of abortion clinics.

Over the last six years, Operation Rescue has escalated the abortion wars by acting to “save babies” through “physically blockading abortion mills.” In response, clinic operators and women’s rights groups have sought new legal weapons to protect themselves and to break up the prote.sts. Their attorneys found success by reviving a nearly 120-year-old statute intended to combat the Ku Klux Klan.

Six years after the Civil War ended, Congress made it illegal for “two or more persons (to) conspire . . . for the purpose of depriving any person or class of persons” from exercising their constitutional rights. During the Reconstruction era, the law gave Union officers in the South a legal way to attack those who harassed and intimidated the freed blacks.


But the Supreme Court never has ruled on whether women or other groups, such as those seeking abortions, are a “class of persons” protected from intimidation under the law.

However, a series of federal judges have used the “Ku Klux Klan Act” as a basis for issuing broad injunctions against protesters who have blocked entrances to abortion clinics.

So far, Operation Rescue has failed to convince the Supreme Court that its members have a 1st Amendment right to block abortion clinics or to disrupt their operations.

On Monday, however, the high court announced that it would consider an appeal by attorneys for Operation Rescue activists who say that the Civil Rights Act of 1871 does not apply to them.

“A lot of women are involved in the pro-life movement. It is a legal insult to say these women are violating the civil rights of women,” said Walter M. Weber of New Hope, Ky., an attorney representing six Operation Rescue activists in the Washington area.

But Alison Wetherfield, an attorney for the NOW Legal Defense Fund in New York, said that the anti-abortion activists use “terrorism” and “mob tactics” to shut down medical clinics. “We think what they are doing violates the fundamental civil rights of women,” she said.

Even if the high court rules that the Klan Act does not cover anti-abortion protests, clinic operators still will have other legal weapons. They can go to state judges to seek injunctions for violations of trespass laws, for example. In extreme cases where clinics have been systematically bombed or vandalized, federal judges also have upheld the use of anti-racketeering laws against anti-abortion leaders.

But in recent years, the clinic lawyers have found the Klan Act to be the best means of getting federal judges to act on their complaints. But there have been notable exceptions.


In September, 1989, U.S. District Judge A. Wallace Tashima in Los Angeles ruled that “abortion seekers” do not qualify as a special class of people entitled to protection. The 1871 law was intended to protect blacks, he said, and may also protect women from sex discrimination. But it cannot be used to protect the subcategory of women who seek abortions, Tashima said. That conclusion has been appealed.

The case before the high court (Bray vs. Alexandria Women’s Health Clinic, 90-985) began with an Operation Rescue effort to “blockade” nine abortion clinics in the Washington area two years ago. Attorneys for the National Organization for Women charged the “rescuers” with violating the Klan Act and a federal judge in Alexandria, Va., agreed.

He issued a permanent injunction forbidding the activists from “trespassing on (or) blockading” the clinics and ordered them to pay $27,000 in attorneys fees. Last year a federal appeals court in Richmond, Va., upheld the order.

In other action, the court agreed to hear an appeal from California prosecutors who want to reinstate the murder conviction of an Oakland man in the beating death of his 6-month-old daughter (Estelle vs. McGuire, 90-1074).