Scheidler v. National Organization for Women, Inc.

PETITIONER: Joseph Scheidler et al.
RESPONDENT: National Organization for Women, Inc., et al.
LOCATION: Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia

DOCKET NO.: 04-1244
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2006-2009)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit

CITATION: 547 US 9 (2006)
GRANTED: Jun 28, 2005
ARGUED: Nov 30, 2005
DECIDED: Feb 28, 2006

Alan Edward Untereiner - argued the cause for Petitioners
Erwin Chemerinsky - argued the cause for Respondents
Lisa Schiavo Blatt -
Lisa S. Blatt - argued the cause for Petitioners

Facts of the case

In 2003, the Supreme Court ruled that abortion protesters do not commit extortion in violation the Hobbs Act and the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) when they blockade abortion clinics, because they do not "obtain" property, as required by the Act. The Court concluded that "Without an underlying RICO violation, the injunction [on the protesters] issued by the District Court must necessarily be vacated." The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals declined to vacate the injunction, however, finding that the Court had only ruled on the 117 counts of extortion, and not on four additional counts of violence unrelated to extortion. The National Organization for Women (NOW) argued that acts of physical violence are sufficient to establish a violation of the Hobbs Act. Scheidler countered that the four counts of "violence-only" were irrelevant to the Hobbs Act, which he said requires that violence be used for robbery or extortion. Scheidler petitioned the Supreme Court to decide whether the Circuit Court had acted properly, and the Court granted certiorari. (Consolidated with No. 04-1352, Operation Rescue v. NOW.)


Does the Hobbs Act prohibit violence unrelated to extortion or robbery?

Media for Scheidler v. National Organization for Women, Inc.

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - November 30, 2005 in Scheidler v. National Organization for Women, Inc.

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - February 28, 2006 in Scheidler v. National Organization for Women, Inc.

John G. Roberts, Jr.:

Justice Breyer has the opinion in No. 04-1244, Scheidler versus National Organization for Women, and 04-1352, Operation Rescue versus National Organization for Women.

Stephen G. Breyer:

The respondents in this litigation, which has been going on for a long time, the respondents are a pro-choice organization.

They have sued the petitioners.

The petitioners engage in pro-life demonstrations at clinics that provide abortions.

Now, the respondents are seeking an injunction issued by the Court, which would prohibit acts of violence at the clinics.

They are basing their legal claim not on a specific statute which exists about abortion clinics, but rather on a general criminal statute, the Hobbs Act, an Act that prohibits robbery and extortion that affects interstate commerce.

We previously decided that respondents failed to show that the petitioners were involved in robbery or extortion, so the Act doesn’t apply; but the petitioners have shown acts of violence not related to extortion or robbery; and that has come back to us and they want to base their injunction on those acts, and so we have to decide whether the Hobbs Act forbids violence, plain and simple.

Well, the Hobbs Act says that an individual commits a federal crime if he or she, “obstructs, delays or affects commerce”, by, “robbery” or, “extortion” or -- and these are the key words -- “committing or threatening physical violence to any person or property in furtherance of a plan or purpose to do anything in violation of this section".

The question in the case concerns the meaning of the words "in furtherance of a plan or purpose to do anything in violation of this section".

Does that phrase refer to violence committed pursuant to the plans or purposes that affect interstate commerce through robbery or extortion, or does it refer to violence committed pursuant to the plans or purposes that affect interstate commerce, plain and simple?

If the former, the statute governs only a limited subset of violent behavior; namely, violent behavior connected to robbery and extortion.

If it’s the latter, the statute governs a much broader range of human activity; namely, all violent actions against persons or property that affect interstate commerce.

Well, we think that the former, the more restrictive reading of the Act.

It’s an important federal criminal statute.

We think that former limited interpretation is the correct interpretation.

First, the language of the statute makes the more restrictive reading the more natural reading.

The text that precedes the physical violence clause does not forbid obstructing or delaying or affecting commerce; what it forbids is obstructing, delaying or affecting commerce by robbery or extortion.

The phrase in question speaks of an earlier violation, and robbery and extortion are the only earlier violations that are mentioned.

Second, the history makes very clear that this more restrictive reading is correct.

In an earlier 1946 version of the Act, Congress put its prohibitions against robbery and extortion in Section 2.

It then put the prohibition against violence in Section 5, and what it said in Section 5 was the kind of violence that were it prohibiting is the kind of violence that is connected with a purpose to violate Section 2, which was where robbery and extortion was referred to.

The present language of the Hobbs Act is not that clear, but the changes from the earlier Act reflect nothing more than a re-codification of the statute, not an effort to change the crime.

Third, the broad interpretation that respondents advocate would federalize an enormous amount of ordinary criminal behavior ranging from simple assault to murder, behavior that is typically the subject of state, not federal, prosecutions.

Not surprisingly, decisions of this Court and other Courts of Appeals have assumed that Congress did not intend the Hobbs Act to have so broad a reach.

That perhaps is why Congress thought it necessary to enact, and in 1994 did enact, a specific statute aimed indirectly at clinic violence, a statute, as I have said, that is not an issue in this case.

We conclude that Congress did not intend to create a freestanding physical-violence offense in the Hobbs Act.

The decision of the Court of Appeals is reversed, and the case is remanded for entry of judgment for petitioners.

Our decision is unanimous; Justice Alito took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.