Editor’s note: On Sept. 6, 2005, a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reduced the punitive damages awarded in the case from $108 million to about $4.7 million. The panel’s unanimous decision was based on a 2003 Supreme Court ruling generally limiting punitive damages to no more than nine times the amount of damages awarded to compensate for monetary losses. An attorney for the defendants said the damages should be reduced further and that he was considering asking the court to reconsider.
WASHINGTON — The U.S. Supreme Court turned back an appeal today from anti-abortion protesters facing a multimillion dollar judgment for targeting clinic doctors with "wanted" posters.
The Court had been asked to give free-speech protection to the activists, but the Bush administration discouraged justices from taking the case, American Coalition of Life Activists v. Planned Parenthood.
Physicians sued, claiming they feared for their lives after being listed on a round of Old West-style wanted posters and having their personal information put on the Nuremberg Files Web site. Three doctors who had been featured on posters were killed.
The American Coalition of Life Activists and others were sued under a racketeering law and the 1994 Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act, which makes it illegal to incite violence and threaten doctors who perform abortions.
The activists were ordered to pay $108 million in punitive damages and $12 million in compensatory damages. An appeals court told the judge in the case to reduce the punitive damages, and the matter is pending.
The case divided the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled that protesters tried to intimidate doctors and clinic staff. Appeals court judges who disagreed with that decision said the posters were free speech.
Edward White III, the attorney for the anti-abortion protesters, said in court filings that if the decision were allowed to stand, "political speakers accused of threats will be at the mercy of local juries, whose crushing verdicts will receive minimal First Amendment scrutiny."
Planned Parenthood attorney Maria Vullo told the Supreme Court that the organizers of the campaign "were fully aware of the poster/murder pattern and the fear in its wake — and they capitalized upon it to intimidate the living physicians by threats of bodily injury."