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Pro-choice advocates may use a federal racketeering law to sue protesters who block women's access to abortion clinics, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously Monday. The ruling threatens Operation Rescue and other pro-life groups with financial ruin.

The decision focused only on interpreting a federal law but nevertheless is a big victory for the National Organization for Women, which took the case to the high court, and for the Clinton administration.Lower courts had thrown out NOW's nationwide class-action lawsuit that invoked the anti-racketeering law against Operation Rescue and other groups. Monday's decision reinstated that lawsuit.

The ruling falls far short of resolving all legal issues surrounding anti-abortion activities.

Just Friday, the high court agreed to clarify - sometime by July - how far courts and local governments may go in restricting protesters outside abortion clinics.

That case pits the free-speech rights of pro-choice protesters against the rights of women seeking abortions and of abortion clinic employees to be free from harassment, intimidation and other illegal conduct.

The court in 1992 reaffirmed the core holding of its landmark Roe vs. Wade decision of 1973 - that women have a constitutional right to abortion.

The focus of Monday's ruling was more on illegal conduct than on peaceful protest outside abortion clinics and whether such conduct can lead to lawsuits under the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, called RICO.

Wendy Wright, a spokeswoman for Operation Rescue, called the decision "a complete travesty of justice. The Supreme Court justices obviously do not understand how far-reaching this case is."

"This opens the floodgates for RICO to be used against anybody who uses free speech in a way that offends somebody else, or freedom of religion or freedom of assembly," Wright said.

Eve Paul of Planned Parenthood said, "We're delighted. NOW has to go back and establish the facts, that there were criminal acts. I'm sure NOW will be able to do that."

In one sense, Monday's decision was hardly surprising. The Supreme Court consistently has refused to narrow how the broadly worded RICO law is applied.

Enacted in 1970, RICO was aimed at organized crime. But increasingly it is used in lawsuits involving just about any business dispute.

Writing for the court, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist said RICO can be invoked to sue over ideologically motivated crimes, not just economically motivated crimes.

NOW and other pro-choice advocates contend that Operation Rescue and others are engaged in a "nationwide campaign of terror" and, like mobsters, are violating RICO's ban on organized crime.

The law makes it a crime for "any person employed or associated with any enterprise in . . . interstate or foreign commerce . . . to participate in a pattern of racketeering activity."

Under RICO, a pattern of racketeering amounts to two or more "predicate acts" from a long list of underlying crimes, including extortion. NOW's lawsuit alleges that a coalition of anti-abortion groups are engaging in extortion by use of harassment, assault, destruction of property and other illegal acts.

If NOW's lawsuit is successful, it could cost Operation Rescue and aligned groups plenty. Those successfully sued under RICO's civil provisions must pay triple damages.



Other court action

- The Supreme Court on Monday refused to reinstate television evangelist Robert Tilton's lawsuit against six men he says conspired to destroy his organization. The court, without comment rejected Tilton's argument that lower courts wrongly dismissed his case.

- Ruled that federal law does not limit the landing fees charged by the nation's airports, as long as those fees are reasonable. The major airlines had argued that those fees generated "huge surpluses" for the airports and discriminated against interstate flights.

- Ruled against an Illinois man who wanted to use a federal civil rights law to sue police after he was wrongfully arrested for drugs. The ruling affirms a lower decision that "malicious prosecution" must be dealt with solely under state laws.

- Overturned a lower court ruling that struck down Oregon's property tax on railroads. Fifteen states had joined Oregon in the case, arguing that an adverse ruling could cost them more than $100 million a year in taxes.