Supreme Court backs new law protecting abortion clinics Justices refuse to consider challenge to federal role; Md. gun case also rejected


WASHINGTON -- The 16-month-old federal law that has led to a wide-ranging government crackdown on threats and violence against abortion clinics withstood a major challenge in the Supreme Court yesterday.

The justices made no comment as they turned aside an anti-abortion group's broad constitutional complaint against a law that Congress passed to provide a national solution to escalating blockades, shootings and firebombings of clinics.

The challenge proved to be an unsuccessful attempt to extend a Supreme Court ruling in June that raised questions about Congress' power to federalize local problems.

In a second significant action yesterday, the court in a Maryland case blunted the continuing campaign of gun owners to turn the Second Amendment's "right to keep and bear arms" into a personal right to have guns. Federal courts have repeatedly said that the Second Amendment includes no such individual right.

Those actions came as the court opened a new term, with Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist absent from the bench. He is recovering from back surgery but is expected to take part in the court's decisions in cases being heard this week.

The court's refusal to consider the abortion clinic and gun-owner cases did not come in full-scale decisions. Rather, the justices simply refused to hear appeals, leaving lower court rulings intact.

That left open the possibility that the same issues could be taken back to the court in future cases, especially if lower courts get into disagreement on the issues at stake. Several additional challenges to the clinic protection law are now pending in lower courts.

Deborah Ellis, legal director of the NOW Legal Defense Fund, praised the court's order and noted that the law "has been effective in reducing the onslaught of violence to which women, doctors and their families have been subjected."

Randall Terry, founder of Operation Rescue, an anti-abortion group that regularly engages in blockades of clinics, reacted this way to the court's action: "Given the current makeup of the Supreme Court, it is not surprising that they should side with the child-killing industry -- but we will never give up."

The Justice Department, prodded by calls for action by women's rights groups and abortion clinics, has pursued 18 criminal or civil cases since the law went into effect in May 1994.

The cases have ranged from the prosecution of Paul Hill of Pensacola, Fla., for murdering a Pensacola abortion doctor, to a criminal case against a Houston man for smashing the windshield of a doctor's car.

Congress passed the law, at the Clinton administration's urging, to put the federal government directly into law enforcement around clinics -- traditionally a task for local police. The law was designed to bolster local police action. It gained support in Congress after the Supreme Court had refused to let clinics use a major federal civil rights law against blockaders.

The case that the justices chose to bypass yesterday was the first challenge leveled in federal courts, in a lawsuit filed within hours after President Clinton signed the measure into law. The challenge was leveled by the American Life League, an anti-abortion group based in Stafford, Va., as well as a priest and others who had engaged in clinic protests.

Their appeal urged the Supreme Court to apply to the clinic law a major ruling the justices had issued last June, raising major new doubts about Congress' power to pass laws to deal with essentially local affairs. The justices gave no reason for declining to consider that plea.

The gun-owners' case that failed to get the justices' attention involved an appeal by a Hyattsville, Md., woman, April Love.

Ms. Love was denied a gun permit by state police because she had prior arrests on minor criminal charges related to her work as a nightclub stripper. At the time, state police routinely used prior arrests as a reason for denying a permit, even if the arrests had not led to a conviction.

In a battle in state courts, Ms. Love forced the state to change its policy and obtained the weapon she wanted. Then she went to federal court with a civil rights damages claim against the police.

The key part of her appeal to the Supreme Court was the argument that the Second Amendment does not merely give states a right to maintain a militia, such as the National Guard, but also confers on individuals a personal right to possess and own guns.

That is an argument that gun-ownership forces, including the National Rifle Association, make in court every year. The Supreme Court's last full-scale ruling against the claim was issued in 1939.

U.S. District Judge Peter J. Messitte of Baltimore and the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond rejected Ms. Love's challenge.

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