Two eagerly awaited Supreme Court decisions last week involving a 1970 federal antiracketeering law may have resolved a crucial legal dispute for now, but they have done little to extinguish a storm of debate involving one of the broadest statutes on the books.
Legal scholars and lawyers, sharply divided over the purpose of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act, expressed unanimity last week about one thing: As a result of the court's decisions, the law will continue to be used in a diverse array of civil actions.
RICO has been invoked in civil suits involving disputes across the legal landscape, from victims of organized crime to plaintiffs in securities-fraud cases. It has also been used to thwart corporate takeovers.
Overshadowing the disputes had been a debate over whether the statute was meant to be applied liberally -- to a broad range of frauds -- or literally, only to "racketeers" such as mobsters and those involved in organized crime.
But many uncertainties involving the civil provisions of RICO were largely resolved by the court in the last week of its 1984-85 term. The court decided in twin cases that a literal interpretation means a liberal construction of the statute, making it applicable not only to the mobster but also to the businessman, banker, accountant or securities dealer.
On Monday the court held, 5 to 4, in Sedima, S.P.R.L. v. Imrex Co., that the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New York erred by imposing two restrictions on lawsuits brought under RICO. Noting that the law nowhere says it should be restricted to criminal activity involving mobsters, the court concluded that RICO applies to "both legitimate and illegitimate enterprises."
Thurgood Marshall, writing for the four dissenting justices, said the ruling "quite simply revolutionizes private litigation."
The same day, in an unsigned opinion in American National Bank and Trust Co. of Chicago v. Haroco, the court approved a decision by the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago that said RICO should be read broadly.
The act was passed 15 years ago after two decades of government studies on the influence of organized crime on American business.
It contains a criminal provision, which has been used successfully against mobsters in New Orleans, New York, Boston and Cleveland. Federal prosecutors have also found the statute useful against corrupt judges, lawyers and policemen in Chicago, against a neo-Nazi group in Arkansas and a domestic terrorist group in Seattle.
The civil provision provides a remedy for victims of "a pattern of racketeering activity." It defines "pattern" as being at least two acts within 10 years. "Racketeering" is defined as one of more than a dozen crimes including mail or wire fraud, or one of several securities frauds. It also includes murder, extortion, kidnaping, gambling and narcotics trafficking.
This provision has only recently been discovered by the legal profession, which has used it in business-related litigation.
The practical effect of last week's opinions was to put the Supreme Court's imprimatur on widespread use of the law.
"The opinions are definitely pro-plaintiff and pro-consumer," said Arthur Mathews, a Washington lawyer. "They will result in a proliferation of RICO suits. I think they were properly decided."
That view is not uniformly shared by the legal community. Critics see the court's action as a burden for defendants and federal courts.
Ronald Liebman, another Washington attorney, said the court's rulings are "ironic because the statute is designed to be used to protect against extortion, and instead is being used to extort settlements out of businessmen."
Alvin M. Stein, a New York attorney, said federal courts will be "incapable of handling the amount of litigation" brought as a result of the Supreme Court's decisions. "The already impossible will become even more so," Stein said, suggesting that the proper forum for most of the fraud-type of RICO actions should be state courts.
But others, such as University of Notre Dame law professor G. Robert Blakey, said the spate of RICO suits is a result of the statute being used correctly.
"From the prosecutor's point of view, RICO is the best thing since sliced bread," said Blakey, a principal drafter of the statute. "I don't see anything wrong with strengthening the hand of the victims of frauds."