Crime & Courts

Suits over clinic access rise under Obama

The Justice Department under President Obama has taken a harder line against anti-abortion activists accused of trying to block access to clinics, suing at least a half-dozen of them under a federal law that lay mostly dormant during the Bush administration.

The law, written to protect people who seek or provide abortions, was revived after Obama took office and after the 2009 murder of Wichita abortion provider George Tiller.

Since Obama's inauguration, federal lawsuits have been filed against a woman who blocked a car from entering a clinic in West Palm Beach, Fla.; a Texas man who threw his body across the door of a patient waiting area in San Antonio; and a Pennsylvania man who posted the names and addresses of abortion providers on the Internet and exhorted his readers to kill them.

Government records obtained by the Associated Press show that in slightly over two years, the Obama Justice Department has filed six lawsuits under the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act, mostly to seek injunctions and fines. That compares with just one lawsuit during the eight years of George W. Bush.

Tiller's slaying "brought home to many of us the terrible potential for violence and the need to use every legal means at our disposal to prevent it," said Barry Grissom, U.S. attorney for Kansas.

President Bill Clinton signed the law in 1994 after a turbulent period that included massive sit-ins at clinics, clinic bombings and other anti-abortion activities that culminated with Tiller being wounded in a 1993 shooting. The Clinton Justice Department filed 17 civil lawsuits under the law.

Carl Tobias, a University of Richmond law professor, said Justice Department decisions usually mirror the president's views. He was not surprised to see the government acting more aggressively.

"I think President Bush was pretty clear about his position on that type of issue," Tobias said. "It is less clear what the present administration's position is, but maybe it is partly reflected in their willingness to be more rigorous about enforcing it."

Thomas Perez, assistant attorney general for the civil rights division, has said that protecting abortion providers so they can do their jobs is of the "utmost importance."

The Justice Department "will continue to aggressively enforce the FACE Act against those who seek to violate the rights of their fellow Americans to safely provide or obtain such services," Perez said.

The figures do not include criminal prosecutions, which have been more consistent from one White House to the next during the early years of the Bush and Obama administrations.

In civil court, one of the latest cases is a Kansas lawsuit filed last month against a Valley Center woman who allegedly sent a threatening letter to a doctor. The government sued Angel Dillard when she wrote that thousands of people across the nation where watching the doctor and suggested she check under her car daily for explosives.

Citing First Amendment protections, Judge J. Thomas Marten ruled that Dillard's letter was not a "true threat" because she did not personally intend to harm the doctor. He refused to issue a preliminary injunction that would have kept her 250 feet away from the doctor, her clinic and her home.

The lawsuit is still pending while the judge awaits arguments on whether to dismiss the case.

Grissom has said the Justice Department pursued a civil case against Dillard — rather than criminal charges — because the legal standard needed for a preliminary injunction is lower than "beyond a reasonable doubt," which is required for a criminal conviction.

"You don't just go around filing injunctions against people that you believe are proponents of violence," Operation Rescue president Troy Newman said. "Domestic violence cases have proven that little injunctions don't stop people from committing acts of violence.... They are pretty weak cases all around the country."

"I suppose other people would say that in fairness to the other side ... that the Obama administration is just as politicized in its Justice Department as the Bush one was," he said. "That is a fair criticism, I think. All the administrations have different priorities."