Ben Johnson

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28 years later, NOW v. Scheidler court case is over; pro-lifers vindicated

Ben Johnson
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Updated on April 30 at 12:09 p.m. EST to include comments from Tom Brejcha and Joe Scheidler. 

CHICAGO, April 29, 2014 (LifeSiteNews.com) – After 28 years in the courts and three hearings before the U.S. Supreme Court, the neverending legal saga of NOW v. Scheidler has come to an end.

The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago closed the case this afternoon by awarding the remaining defendants $63,391 in court costs. The judges seemed to take satisfaction in putting the long-running legal dispute behind them.

“This litigation has lasted far too long. At last, it is over,” the Chicago-based court said in its ruling

"I hope he's right," said Joseph Scheidler, founder of the Pro-life Action League and the chief defendant. "This ruling is long-awaited good news."

The labyrinthine case began as an anti-trust case in 1986, less than two years into Ronald Reagan's second presidential term, when the National Organization for Women sued Illinois pro-life activist Joe Scheidler, as well as the Pro-Life Action League, John Ryan, the Pro-life Direct Action League, and Joan Andrews. (Andrews was later dropped from the list, and some defendants settled along the way.)

NOW alleged that sidewalk counselors were using violence or threats of violence by blocking the entrance to abortion facilities.

The original attorneys for NOW were Morris Dees and the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), although the controversial left-wing legal group dropped out of the case in 1988.

The case broadened when Patricia Ireland took over, accusing Scheidler of violating the Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act, a statute intended to prosecute members of the Mafia. U.S. Supreme Court justices allowed the RICO Act to be used in a unanimous 1994 ruling.

More defendants were added, until NOW compiled a list of more than 100 “co-conspirators,” accusing sidewalk counselors of using violence or threats of violence to stop women from having abortions. They even deposed convicted murderer Paul Hill in an attempt to paint a picture of a vast conspiracy of pro-life vigilantism.

“The abortion plaintiffs had been claiming that the heroic leaders whom we defended were leaders of a vast nationwide conspiracy comprising as many as a million members, thereby putting a black cloud over pro-life efforts to advocate against abortion as if these efforts to save human lives were some horrific enterprise bent on ‘extortion’ and ‘racketeering,’” Tom Brejcha, president and chief counsel of the Thomas More Society, said. 

In April 1998, a jury found Scheidler and the pro-life defendants guilty, and District Judge David Coar assessed a fine of more than $257,000.

The Scheidlers put their family home up for bond during the case.

The Appeals Court upheld the conviction. But in 2003, the Supreme Court overturned the guilty verdict.

NOW pressed on, arguing the High Court had overlooked aspects of the law that could allow the suit to continue. Again Judge Coar and the appeals court agreed, and again the Supreme Court overturned their decision. Final judgment was entered on May 14, 2007.

The Appeals Court noted its poor record in today's ruling, observing that “the Supreme Court reversed us three times.”

“[T]he Supreme Court eventually deemed the plaintiffs' legal theories to be deficient,” the court said pointedly.

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Judge Coar retired in 2011, leaving the case to District Judge Charles Norgle, who awarded the defendants legal costs exceeding $63,000 in May – after the defendants “had waited five-and-a-half years for judicial action,” the court noted today.

That's $2,300 for each year the 28-year-long case was stuck in litigation.

NOW once again appealed in a court hearing on April 18. Today, the Seventh Circuit Court dismissed their claims as “preposterous.”

NOW's demanded that the defendants prove every copy of every transcript was necessary for the case. “No sensible legal system requires parties to waste $60 of lawyers' time to explain spending $6 on making a copy of something,” Judge Frank Easterbrook wrote in the court's seven-page ruling.

NOW also objected that the defendants did not ask Judge Coar, who had proven himself hostile in repeated hearings, to act on their motion for costs before retiring.

The Appeals Court replied that the law doesn't require parties “to pester” or engage in “nagging” judges to decide a case.

Brejcha, who took over litigation of the case early in its course, celebrated the “long-awaited, hopefully final victory” handed down.

“After nearly 28 years of litigating and three trips to the U.S. Supreme Court, we are proud to declare that pro-lifers’ First Amendment rights to free speech and association are once again secure and protected by law,” he said.. “Banding together with fellow citizens to advocate for the sanctity of each and every human life – born and unborn, wanted or allegedly ‘unwanted’ – are precious rights of all American citizens.”

You may read the ruling here. You may listen to the April 18 oral arguments here.

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