Government & Politics

Secretary of State rejects two petitions to overturn Missouri’s new abortion law

Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft said Thursday that he has rejected two of three referendum applications seeking to overturn a recently passed law that criminalizes abortions after eight weeks of pregnancy.

Ashcroft said the issue is an emergency clause that went into effect immediately when Gov. Mike Parson signed the bill last month. It requires some minors to notify both of their parents before getting an abortion. The clause was approved by two-thirds of the legislature, as required by the state constitution.

The rest of the law, including the eight-week ban, goes on the books Aug. 28.

But the state constitution also 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,” he said.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri, which filed one of the rejected applications, said it has already assembled its lawsuit.

“We’ll see you in court,” it said in a statement, moments after the press conference finished.

The second and third applications were filed by attorney Lowell Pearson, on behalf of GOP megadonor and Joplin businessman David Humphreys. Humphreys, noting the lack of exceptions for victims of rape and incest, had urged Parson to veto the bill and has since backed an effort to overturn the law.

Pearson said he planned to file a lawsuit in Cole County Circuit Court Friday. He noted that there was no case law that showed how referendum should handle a partial emergency clause. Unlike initiative petitions, referendums have only appeared on the ballot 27 times.

“This is a mechanism that’s not used often so this lawsuit might give clarification moving forward,” Pearson said.

In a letter sent to Secretary of State’s Office on Wednesday, Pearson argued that case law shows that the power of the public to reject laws by the legislature must be “zealously guarded.”

He noted that the one of the proponents told St. Louis Public Radio, “What we did in the bill is actually preempt that type of situation [a referendum] by putting an emergency clause in there. So there can’t be a referendum.”

“The use of the word ‘preempt’ is telling, indicating a conscious effort to eliminate the constitutional power of the People,” Pearson wrote.

A third referendum application is still under review. Also submitted by Pearson, it does not challenge portions of the bill that are under an emergency clause.

Ashcroft stressed that Thursday’s action was not political. His office did not wait on making a decision, he added.

“We wanted to be very clear and very careful that we did not do anything that would lead to any sort of thought that it was a political decision,” Ashcroft said. “Regardless if you say the sky is blue and the grass is green, someone will find fault.”

The ACLU of Missouri did not seem to think so. It lumped the GOP lawmakers’ action with efforts by Parson and legislature to eliminate abortion in Missouri.

“Secretary of State John Ashcroft is caught up in Missouri politicians’ longing to be the first state in the nation to ban abortion,” Tony Rothert, the organization’s action executive director, said in statement. “Predictably, he is trying to deprive Missourians of their right to weigh in on the abortion question with a vote.”

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