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Missouri Secretary of State rejects last referendum to overturn new abortion law

Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft
Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft File photo/AP

Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft has rejected a third referendum application to overturn the state’s new abortion law, which criminalizes the procedure after 8 weeks of pregnancy.

The application was the second filed by Joplin businessman and GOP megadonor David Humphreys, who opposes the measure’s lack of exemptions for victims of rape and incest. He has contributed $1 million to fight the law.

Ashcroft has said that all three referendum applications—one was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri—violate the Missouri Constitution.

Unlike the other two petitions, the third challenged only the portions of the law not already in effect through an emergency clause. The clause is a legislative mechanism that allows bills to become law upon the governor’s signature.

While the 8-week abortion ban goes on the books like most laws on Aug. 28, a small portion of the law—requiring some minors to notify both of their parents before getting an abortion—passed under an emergency clause and became law when Missouri Gov. Mike Parson signed the bill May 24.

The constitutions of a small number of states, like Maryland, Oregon, Washington and Arizona, allow for a part of a law to be challenged through referendum. Missouri’s does not, according to a statement by Ashcroft’s office announcing the move.

Approving the referendum application to circulate for signatures would set a new a precedent, the statement said.

“The Constitution of Missouri may not be changed – and never has been changed – without a vote of the people,” Ashcroft said in the statement.

The third referendum was specifically filed to avoid the legal fight the first two referendum applications have triggered.

Ashcroft said he rejected the first two petitions because of the emergency clause. The state constitution says the people’s right to challenge a law by referendum is limited in instances where “laws necessary for the immediate preservation of the public peace” and “healthy or safety.”

Ashcroft said the courts will have to make the final determination.

“The Secretary of State’s Office does not have the ability to decide whether an emergency clause is truly an emergency,” Ashcroft told reporters in a press conference last week.

The ACLU and Humphreys have sued to reverse the SOS’s decision.

The first hearing Tuesday ended on a legal technicality, when Cole County Circuit Court Judge Daniel Green asked the ACLU and Humphreys’ attorney, Lowell Pearson, to amend their lawsuit.

“(The lawsuit) will substantively be the same,” Pearson told reporters, after the hearing.

If any of the applications were to survive, supporters would only have until Aug. 28 to collect at least 100,000 signatures to get the law on the 2020 ballot. There, Missourians will be able to take an up-or-down vote on the law.

“I think what happened today was unlikely to cause any kind of delay,” Pearson said, of the postponed ruling.

The rejection of the third referendum came shortly after the hearing, and Pearson said he had not the time to review Ashcroft’s decision. He said another court challenge was possible.

“I haven’t decided yet,” Pearson said.

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