Today in 1994: SCOTUS applies RICO to antiabortion activists

January 24, 2014

Today in Legal HistoryThe Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, more commonly referred to as “RICO,” was passed during the 1970s as a major tool in the fight against organized crime.

To this end, RICO provides for legal sanctions, both criminal and civil, for any individual who participates or (conspires to participate) in a criminal enterprise through two or more acts of “racketeering activity” within a ten year span of time.  RICO is somewhat unique in that it doesn’t actually specify any specific crimes outside of engaging in other crimes as part of a criminal enterprise.

Here are the specific elements of the “crime” created by RICO: (1) the individual was “associated with” (2) an “enterprise” affecting interstate commerce, (3) and was engaged with or participated in the conduct of the enterprise (4) through a “pattern of racketeering activity” – which is defined as the commission of one or more of several statutorily specified crimes within a ten year period.

Although clearly applicable to organized crime, RICO has actually been utilized far more often in the field of white collar crime in recent years.

But the application of RICO doesn’t end there.  If you can believe it, it has also been applied against antiabortion groups – an application that the Supreme Court upheld 20 years ago today in National Organization for Women v. Scheidler, decided on January 24, 1994.

Scheidler began as a civil RICO action brought by women’s rights organization NOW, along with several abortion clinics against a coalition of antiabortion groups, the most prominent of which was the Pro-Life Action Network (PLAN).

NOW alleged that PLAN “were members of a nationwide conspiracy to shut down abortion clinics through a pattern of racketeering activity” in violation of RICO.  The “racketeering activity” alleged here was that the antiabortion activists

conspired to use threatened or actual force, violence, or fear to induce clinic employees, doctors, and patients to give up their jobs, give up their economic right to practice medicine, and give up their right to obtain medical services at the clinics.

At the district court level, the antiabortion activists were able to get the case dismissed under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) (failure to state a legal claim).  The court found that all elements of the RICO claim were met – with the exception of “an economic motive requirement.”

Specifically, the district court ruled that because the antiabortion activists engaged in the alleged racketeering activity because of “political objectives, not marketplace goals,” RICO could not be applied against them.  According to the district court, had the extortion committed by the activists been done for an economic motive – say, because they were trying to help out a competing network of abortion clinics (I know the possibility seems bizarre) – then RICO could apply.  The court of appeals affirmed.

The Supreme Court didn’t agree, though, and unanimously overturned the lower court’s decision.

The majority opinion held that the plain text of the law only requires that the racketeering activities in question affect “interstate or foreign commerce,” and that the lower courts had erroneous read this to mean that there must be an economic motivation behind the activity itself.

Instead, the Court held that there was nothing in the congressional record to suggest that Congress intended to imply in an economic motive, and further that such a motive isn’t required for the activity to have an impact on interstate commerce.  After all, the Court reasoned, such alleged acts of extortion by the antiabortion activists cause the loss of business of the clinics (indeed, that was the intent behind the acts), which itself has a clear impact on interstate commerce.

And with the Scheidler ruling, the Court opened up RICO to apply to a broad range of other criminal activities that lack specific economic motivation.