Government & Politics

Missouri Supreme Court denies ACLU request to speed approval of abortion ban referendum

Hundreds protest Missouri abortion ban at Plaza in Kansas City

Hundreds of demonstrators gathered Sunday at the Country Club Plaza in Kansas City to protest a near-total ban on abortions passed by Missouri lawmakers.
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Hundreds of demonstrators gathered Sunday at the Country Club Plaza in Kansas City to protest a near-total ban on abortions passed by Missouri lawmakers.

With an Aug. 28 deadline fast approaching, backers of a referendum seeking to overturn Missouri’s new abortion law suffered a legal setback when the state Supreme Court said Friday it would not order officials to have the petition ready to distribute for signatures by next week.

In a brief ruling Friday morning, the court denied to hear a request by the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri (ACLU) that it order Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft and Attorney General Eric Schmitt to expedite the process of certifying ballot language so that referendum advocates can begin collecting signatures.

The ACLU needs more than 100,000 signatures before Aug. 28 to place the law on the 2020 ballot. It asked that certification, or legal review, of the ballot language be completed by July 18.

The new law bans abortions after 8 weeks of pregnancy. There are no exceptions for rape or incest. Part of the law — requiring some minors to notify both custodial parents before getting an abortion — went into effect upon Parson’s signature May 24.

The majority of the law will be in force Aug. 28. If advocates obtain enough valid signatures, it will be frozen until the 2020 vote.

“My office will prepare the proposed ballot summary statement and forward it to the attorney general’s office for review and follow the timeline that the law requires,” Ashcroft said in a statement. “When I took office, I swore an oath to the Constitution. I will proceed as I have from the beginning, following the Constitution and staying true to that oath.”

The ACLU accused Ashcroft of “dragging his feet” and chalked up any delay to his anti-abortion stance. It urged him to certify the ballot title by July 18 without the court mandate.

“While it is fantastic that the courts have made clear that he acted illegally, he may well succeed in preventing voters from getting their say on this important issue,” Tony Rothert, the ACLU’s legal director, said in a statement. “Ashcroft’s tenure as Missouri’s chief election officer continues to be marked by efforts to prevent Missourians from voting.”

Ashcroft threw out the referendum June 6, contending that since the law was already partially in effect, a referendum was unconstitutional. The ACLU sued and lost in Cole County Circuit Court, then appealed to the Missouri Court of Appeals.

A three-judge panel ruled Monday in the ACLU’s favor. It said Ashcroft’s review of the ACLU’s referendum application should have been limited to whether the ballot language was sufficient “to form,” meaning whether it was written correctly. A review of whether the referendum abided by the Missouri Constitution, judges said, could come only after the ACLU submitted its signatures.

But the appeals court said it could not force state officials to expedite the review process. The ACLU filed an appeal for emergency relief to the Missouri Supreme Court Wednesday. The court denied the ACLU a rehearing on the matter.

The ACLU said in its filing that by law, the state could take until Aug. 14 to complete its work, making signature collection extremely difficult, if not impossible.

“Without rehearing on this issue, (Ashcroft and Schmitt) might well lose the case but nonetheless succeed in keeping the referendum off the ballot: they will have successfully delayed the start of signature collection by weeks more than what is contemplated by the referendum statutes, not to mention the Constitution,” the ACLU stated in its brief.

The secretary of state’s office has yet to draft a ballot summary language and the attorney general’s office has to approve it.

Also, the referendum is required to have a public comment period lasting 15 days. The secretary of state accepted comments from May 28 until the day the referendum was rejected, June 6. As of Friday, it had started to accept comments again on its website.

“It is the Secretary of State and the Attorney General who have refused to do their statutory duty, not Appellants,” the ACLU argued. “Therefore, they should bear the burden of that decision by having less time to prepare and approve a summary statement and ballot title, not Appellants who should have less time to collect signatures.”

In an opposing brief filed on behalf of Ashcroft and Schmitt Thursday, Missouri Solicitor General John Sauer argued that the deadlines were set by state law.

“If the court denies transfer, the Secretary of State stands ready to immediately move forward with the referendum process,” Sauer stated in the brief.

Neither the Ashcroft, nor Schmitt, filed an appeal of the appellate court’s decision with the Missouri Supreme Court by a Friday 9 a.m. deadline the court ordered. The attorney general’s office declined to comment and referred questions to secretary of state’s office.

Even though Ashcroft did not appeal the western appellate court’s decision to the Supreme Court, he said he disagreed with their analysis.

“It’s my responsibility to the people of Missouri to tell them when something is filed unconstitutionally before they go through the hard work and financial expenditure — not after,” Ashcroft said in a statement. “From a plain reading of the Missouri Constitution, it was both my authority and responsibility to reject the referendum when I did.”

Even if the ACLU gathers all of its signatures, Ashcroft could once again reject the referendum and refuse certify it for the ballot on the same grounds, a move that would likely draw another court challenge.

This story was updated to include comments by the secretary of state and the ACLU.

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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.