BROOKLYN (CN) – A federal judge in Brooklyn heard closing arguments Tuesday in a dispute between a dozen anti-abortion protesters and the New York attorney general’s office, which says they got too aggressive outside a Queens clinic.
The parties argued for about 90 minutes before a full courtroom and U.S. District Judge Carol Amon, who grilled and challenged lawyers on both sides. She did not rule from the bench.
The attorney general’s office investigated for over a year before bringing its case last June. The complaint claims clients have been harassed, threatened and groped by the defendant protesters, who had been gathering outside Choices Medical Clinic in Jamaica, Queens, nearly every Saturday since 2012. Many of them belong to the Church at the Rock in Brooklyn.
It’s an important case likely to establish precedent no matter the outcome, according to the Thomas More Society, a conservative nonprofit law firm that represents many of the defendants.
Based on her questioning Tuesday, Judge Amon is still thinking hard about her ruling.
“Most defendants say any contact with [clinic] escorts or patients was accidental,” she said to Assistant Attorneys General Nancy Trasande and Sandra Pullman.
The judge wanted to know if such contact could still violate the physical obstruction prong of the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act, or FACE.
In its court papers and arguments, prosecutors cited federal, state and city laws and ordinances like FACE, which offers certain protections to people seeking reproductive health services. Use of force, threats and physical obstruction outside of clinics are all barred.
“Are there videotapes that show [the contact] was intentional?” Judge Amon asked.
“Yes!” came a woman’s emphatic voice from the gallery, in the row where Choices CEO Merle Hoffman, wearing sunglasses and carrying a crutch, sat near clinic escort leader Mary Lou Greenberg. Both women have testified in the case.
Trasande pointed to statements by defendant Jasmine LaLande, who allegedly claimed she would do “whatever I need to do” to get to a woman “in need” of sidewalk counseling. Trasande added that her office did not need a statement of intent to prove obstruction.
Prosecutors also said several of the defendants had poked their signs into the path of patients.
“We’re not talking about one instance and one stumble,” Pullman said. “We’ve heard this is a pattern of behavior over a period of time,” later calling it a “pattern of crowding.”
Speaking for several of the defendants, attorney Stephen Crampton argued the protesters’ conduct could not constitute harassment because “a legitimate purpose is always present,” meaning they are motivated by powerful religious beliefs and are under pressure to communicate their high-stakes message to patients in a matter of seconds.
“That is the quintessential legitimate purpose,” Crampton said.
“So you’re saying there’s no right to be left alone?” Amon asked him.
“Correct,” Crampton said.
“So you say it’s just speech,” said Amon, “and you can’t ban speech.”
“I think that’s a starting point, Your Honor, yes,” Crampton replied.
Amon had reminded the parties at a February hearing that leafletting is a “form of really protected speech,” and that sidewalks are recognized as the “quintessential public forum.”
Crampton also cited statistics by the National Abortion Federation that violence outside abortion clinics has decreased, particularly in the New York region.
In the gallery as he spoke, Hoffman, her sunglasses off, leaned her head back and gazed at the ceiling.
“We no longer have this sort of climate here,” Crampton said.
The National Abortion Federation did in fact track no deadly incidents around abortion clinics in 2017, but threats of violence to providers nearly doubled and trespass and obstruction incidents approximately tripled last year.
At the end of Tuesday’s arguments, Amon asked both parties if they had discussed a settlement. They said it would be unlikely.
“There won’t be compromise on the fundamental issues,” Martin Cannon, who represents the majority of the defendants, told the judge, who then dismissed the courtroom.
The acting New York attorney general is Barbara Underwood, who took over earlier this month when Eric Schneiderman, who initially brought the case, resigned over allegations that he physically abused former romantic partners.
State lawmakers decided Tuesday to keep Underwood in the position through the end of the year.