A marathon legal fight over protests outside abortion clinics will return to the Supreme Court for a third time, with the justices agreeing yesterday to revisit whether federal racketeering and extortion laws can be used to stop menacing blockades outside clinic entrances.
The court agreed to hear what is now a 19-year-old case - the second abortion-related case on next term's calendar - as it finished its work for the summer with no public indication that Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist plans to retire, as many predicted.
Rehnquist, who is 80 and has thyroid cancer, has made no public comment on his plans.
12 terms together
A retirement announcement could come later this week or over the summer, but the current nine justices otherwise are expected to return in October to begin what would be their 12th term together.
The possibility of a vacancy still loomed. A conservative legal group that represents the anti-abortion advocacy group Operation Rescue in the long-running blockade case noted that unknown factor in praising the court's decision to again hear the issue.
"We are hopeful the high court will move to vindicate these pro-life demonstrators once and for all," said Jay Sekulow, chief counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice.
"It is an important case that puts the issue of abortion front and center at a time when the makeup of the court could very well change before this case is argued next term."
In an 8-1 ruling two years ago, the Supreme Court said that racketeering laws best known for bringing down organized crime operations had been wrongly applied to abortion protesters in a 1998 trial that resulted in a $276,000 verdict against anti-abortion protesters and a nationwide injunction restricting their activities.
The court's ruling was widely thought to have ended the case, originally brought by the National Organization for Women and two abortion clinics.
In the years since the novel claim first was brought, abortion clinics were given greater protections when Congress in 1994 created tougher sanctions for individuals who staged unlawful or threatening protests.
But a federal appeals court in Chicago ruled last year that some legal issues in the original case still remained.
"This does not open Pandora's Box," the appeals court said. "It merely resolves the final loose ends in this long-running litigation in a manner that is fair to both sides and that acknowledges the need to resolve all properly presented issues."
The protester case is the second abortion challenge that the court has agreed to put on its calendar for next term.
Last month, the court also unexpectedly agreed to hear an appeal of a federal court order striking down a New Hampshire parental notification law - the first major abortion rights case before the court in five years.
The court also agreed yesterday to hear an appeal from a death row inmate in Tennessee who claims that new DNA evidence could exonerate him in the 1985 rape and murder of a female neighbor whose husband also was a suspect in the crime.
A closely divided 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected the appeal by death row inmate Paul House last year, with one of the dissenting judges calling the case a "real-life murder mystery, an authentic 'who-done-it' where the wrong man may be executed."
The case marks the first time the court will consider DNA evidence and the constitutional right to a fair trial.
A day after the court delivered a split verdict on public displays of the Ten Commandments, it turned away without comment appeals of lower court rulings in Kentucky and Ohio that had barred placing the Ten Commandments on school grounds or in courtrooms.
The court also declined to hear an appeal of a court ruling that barred the town council in Great Falls, S.C., from opening its meetings with a prayer that invoked Jesus Christ.