In June 2001, The Nation reported on the case of Dr. James Scott Pendergraft, an African-American abortion provider in Florida who had been convicted on federal charges of attempted extortion. A hero of reproductive rights advocates, who ran five clinics in the state, Pendergraft felt his case had clearly been about abortion, not extortion. The Nation fully agreed.
To recap: After Pendergraft threatened to sue the city of Ocala for inadequate protection of his clinic during a meeting with local officials, the feds accused him of trying to squeeze money out of the county commission, and stuck him with the extortion charge. (see “Abortion on Trial” by Hillary Frey and Miranda Kennedy, June 18, 2001). Facing a predominately white, conservative jury and tricky prosecution, Pendergraft was found guilty and sentenced to forty-six months in a federal penitentiary in January 2001.
Pendergraft appealed his conviction, and in February of this year he was released from prison after serving seven months, pending a decision on his appeal from the US Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit. Then on July 16, Judges Gerald Bard Tjoflat, Emmett Cox and Paul Roney announced their final verdict: Pendergraft’s convictions were completely overturned and all charges were dismissed. “The right of citizens to petition their government for the redress of grievances is fundamental to our constitutional structure,” Cox wrote for the appeal panel. “A threat to file suit against a government, then, cannot be ‘wrongful’ in itself.”
Dr. Pendergraft is now back at work in his Florida clinics. This is a significant victory for all those who believe in choice for women.