Supreme Court Rules on Abortion and Retaliation

by Patricia Ireland,
NOW President

Chief Justice William Rehnquist condemned the "in your face" tactics of anti-abortionists and Associate Justice Clarence Thomas championed the rights of ex-employees who face retaliation as the U.S. Supreme Court announced rulings in Schenk v. Pro-Choice Network and Robinson v. Shell Oil .

A Mixed Decision on Anti-Abortion Attacks.

The day after a Maryland man was charged with arson for torching a Falls Church, Va., women's health clinic long targeted by anti-abortionists, the U.S. Supreme Court by a 6-3 vote upheld fixed buffer zones around clinics. Justices Thomas, Antonin Scalia and Anthony Kennedy dissented from the Feb. 19 ruling which reinforced a 1994 decision in Madsen v. Women's Health Center, a Florida case involving a 36-foot protective zone.

In announcing the decision in court and in his written opinion, Rehnquist vividly described the anti-abortion attacks which justified 15-foot buffers around clinics in Buffalo and Rochester, N.Y., where the case arose. "[V]olunteers who attempt to escort patients past protesters . . . were sometimes elbowed, grabbed or spit on."

But despite these physical assaults, the justices cited free speech concerns in voting 8 to 1 to strike down 15-foot floating buffer or bubble zones. These zones were designed to move with patients and staff to protect them from assault outside the fixed buffers surrounding the clinic. Only Justice Stephen Breyer voted to uphold the bubble zones.

Ex-Employees Protected from Retaliation.

In a decision that substantially strengthens the rights of employees who bring charges of harassment and discrimination, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that workers can sue their former employers for retaliating against them even if they are no longer on the job.

Charles Robinson, who won the favorable ruling by the Supreme Court on Feb. 18, brought charges against Shell Oil Company for giving him a bad reference after he complained the company had fired him because he is black. But Robinson had been stymied by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals' position that ex-employees were not protected under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act against retaliation by their former bosses.

The Supreme Court's decision resolved a split among federal circuit courts of appeal and gives new hope to women like Maureen Polsby, featured in earlier National NOW Times stories and at NOW's 1994 National Conference in San Antonio, Texas. Polsby sued the National Institutes of Health for denying her residency credits for her work after the researcher left a prestigious fellowship in neurology at NIH. Polsby charged that NIH's action, which delayed for a decade her board certification in her specialty, was taken in retaliation for a sex discrimination complaint she had filed against the Institutes.

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