Government & Politics

Court orders Missouri Secretary of State to approve ACLU’s abortion ban challenge

A three-judge panel ordered the Missouri Secretary of State Monday to approve an application for a referendum challenging the new law that bans abortions after eight weeks of pregnancy.

The application for the referendum, which would have Missourians vote to approve or reverse the law in 2020, was submitted by the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri but denied by Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft June 6. He also denied two applications filed by GOP megadonor and Joplin businessman David Humphreys, who also seeks to overturn the law.

Ashcroft said he rejected the applications because they challenged a law that was partially in effect. Though most of the statute is effective Aug. 28, one part — requiring some minors to notify both custodial parents of their abortion — was subject to an emergency clause approved by two-thirds of the legislature and went into force when Gov. Mike Parson signed the bill into law in May.

The ACLU argued Ashcroft was premature in rejecting the referendum. It sued, but the case was immediately dismissed from Cole County Circuit Court. The organization appealed to the Missouri Court of Appeals.

Just hours after a 35-minute hearing Monday, the three-judge panel decided in the ACLU’s favor. It noted that because the referendum is time-sensitive, it would not remand the case to the lower court but rather order Ashcroft to approve the sample petition for circulation within 15 days.

In their opinion, the judges said Ashcroft erred in rejecting the petition based on constitutional grounds. During the pre-signature review, Ashcroft’s office is only meant to evaluate whether the referendum is sufficient as to “form,” meaning whether the ballot language is written correctly.

Once signatures are gathered and the petition is submitted for certification for the ballot, can Ashcroft “conduct a broader review” for compliance with the constitution, they wrote.

The court did not weigh in as to whether the two-parent notification measure constituted an emergency or whether the portion of the law in effect could be challenged, saying the points were “moot” to the secretary of state’s pre-signature review.

The state could appeal the panel’s ruling to the Missouri Supreme Court. The Attorney General’s Office is currently reviewing the decision closely and will decide on the next steps shortly, according to its spokesman Chris Nuelle.

After the hearing, Tony Rothert, legal director of the ACLU in Missouri, said citizen rights to referendum should not be “so easily and effectively quashed by the legislature.”

“The Missouri Legislature and Secretary Ashcroft tried to block two constitutional rights — the right of the people to challenge a state law through referendum and the right of the people to receive an abortion,” Rothert said in a statement after the ruling. “Blocking the ballot box was a cowardly move designed to silence the people’s voice. We are pleased with the court’s decision and will evaluate next steps in ensuring this law does not go into effect.”

The court denied the ACLU’s request to have the title certified for the ballot by July 18, which would give it what it says is enough time to gather the more than 100,000 signatures needed from six congressional districts. The ACLU has already held events to recruit volunteers to pass out the petition, even though it does not yet know when it can begin to circulate the petition.

A request for comment to the secretary of state’s office was not returned.

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Crystal Thomas covers Missouri politics for The Kansas City Star. An Illinois native and a graduate of the Missouri School of Journalism, she has experience covering state and local government.
Luke Nozicka covers local crime and federal courts for The Kansas City Star. Before joining The Star, he covered breaking news and courts for The Des Moines Register.