The court ruled 8-1 that such laws had been improperly used to punish protesters, reversing lower court judgments.
The ruling stems from a 1986 case in which the National Organization for Women and others sued anti-abortion groups Operation Rescue and the Pro-Life Action League for blocking access to clinics using tactics that included violent demonstrations.
A jury in 1998 found the groups guilty of dozens of transgressions, including violations of federal and state extortion laws, conspiracy, violations of racketeering laws and four acts or threats of physical violence.
The jury ordered the groups and several of their leaders named in the suit to pay $258,000 in damages and to refrain from trespassing or behaving violently at abortion clinics for 10 years. Wednesday’s ruling ends that injunction.
The groups were charged under the 1970 Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, known as RICO, and the 1946 Hobbs Act, originally aimed at organized crime, which says it is unlawful to forcibly take someone else’s property.
Writing for the court, Chief Justice William Rehnquist said that the Hobbs Act applies only when someone acquires property owned by someone else — an element he says was not present in the abortion protest case.
“There is no dispute in these cases that [the anti-abortion activists] interfered with, disrupted and in some cases completely deprived [the health clinics] of their ability to exercise their property rights,” Rehnquist wrote.
“But even when their acts of interference and disruption achieved their ultimate goal of ‘shutting down’ a clinic that performed abortions, such acts did not constitute extortion,” he added.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote separately that the court was “rightly reluctant” to allow an expansion of the RICO law to include protesters.
The lone dissent came from Justice John Paul Stevens, who disagreed with the court’s “murky opinion” that the extortion law applies only to the acquisition of property.
“The principal beneficiaries of the court’s dramatic retreat from the position that federal prosecutors and federal courts have maintained throughout the history of this important statute will certainly be the class of professional criminals whose conduct persuaded Congress that the public needed federal protection from extortion,” Stevens wrote.