Scheidler v. National Organization for Women, 537 U.S. 393; 123 S. Ct. 1057; 154 L. Ed. 2d 991 (2003)

Scheidler v. National Organization for Women, 537 U.S. 393; 123 S. Ct. 1057; 154 L. Ed. 2d 991 (2003)

Facts—Scheidler and other members of the Pro-Life Action Network (PLAN) were sued in 1986 for violating the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization Act (RICO). The district and circuit courts both dismissed the charge on the basis that the protestor’s actions were not economically motivated, but the U.S. Supreme Court decided that this motivation was not required and sent the case back to the District Court. That court decided that abortion protestors were in violation of the Hobbs Act and state extortion laws and issued a nationwide injunction prohibiting obstructing access to abortion clinics. The Seventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed.

Question—Did attempts to block access to abortion clinics violate the provisions of the Hobbs Act, which prohibited extortion?


ReasonsC.J. Rehnquist (8–1). Absent congressional language to the con- trary, the Court presumes “that a statutory term has its common-law mean- ing.” Under common law, extortion was tied to taking something of value. It also required the “acquisition” of such property. Although the protestors in this case interfered with the exercise of property rights, committing “coercion,” they did not appropriate such property in an act of “extortion.” Criminal statutes must be “strictly construed” so that any ambiguity is resolved in favor of leniency. Since petitioners “did not obtain or attempt to obtain property from respondents, we conclude that there was no basis upon which to find that they committed extortion under the Hobbs Act.”

J. Ginsburg, concurring, argued that the Seventh Circuit Court decision interpreted RICO statutes too broadly.

J. Stevens, dissenting, argued that the Court had interpreted RICO too narrowly and cited a number of cases as proof.

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