Judge rules Missouri abortion rights ballot initiatives can move forward
A Cole County judge ordered Attorney General Andrew Bailey to approve Auditor Scott Fitzpatrick’s cost estimate on ballot items aiming to expand abortion access in Missouri.
Bailey said he would appeal Judge Jon Beetem’s decision.
At issue are a series of ballot initiatives that seek to once again legalize abortion in Missouri. While the details of the initiatives differ, they effectively would repeal a ban on abortion that was put in place in Missouri with the fall of Roe v. Wade.
As auditor, Fitzpatrick is required to come up with an estimate, called a fiscal note, on whether an initiative costs the state money or brings in revenue. Fitzpatrick submitted a fiscal note that stated the initiatives would have a minimal financial impact.
But Bailey refused to sign off on the fiscal notes, contending that the initiatives could cost billions of dollars in lost federal Medicaid funding. Fitzpatrick said that argument is not valid and that no state agency argued that the initiatives would lead to the loss of Medicaid funding.
The standoff between Fitzpatrick and Bailey meant that proponents of the ballot items couldn’t gather signatures, which prompted Dr. Anna Fitz-James, who submitted the initiatives, to file a lawsuit.
In a ruling released on Tuesday, Beetem wrote Bailey’s office “has no authority to substitute his own judgment for that of the auditor regarding the estimated cost of a proposed measure as part of his review and approval of its legal content and form.”
Beetem noted that the legislature eliminated the attorney general’s ability to draft fiscal note summaries in the 1980s. He wrote that “it is illogical to conclude the General Assembly repealed the Attorney General’s authority to draft fiscal note summaries, but silently intended for the Attorney General to be able to substitute his judgment as to the estimated cost or savings of a measure for that of the auditor’s.”
Beetem ordered Bailey to approve Fitzpatrick’s fiscal note within 24 hours.
In a statement, Fitzpatrick noted that he’s personally opposed to the initiatives expanding abortion access. But he said, "I firmly believe my personal stance cannot and should not impact the duty my office has to provide voters with an unbiased assessment of each measure's fiscal impact.”
“I appreciate the decision of the court to uphold the process that has been in place for decades so my office can continue to create fiscal notes that are as fair and accurate as possible,” Fitzpatrick said.
More legal action on the horizon
Attorneys from the ACLU of Missouri helped argue the case for the proponents of the abortion legalization ballot measures.
Tori Schafer, deputy director of policy and campaigns for the ACLU of Missouri, said that it was Bailey’s right to appeal the decision but that she was confident that the Court of Appeals would uphold Beetem’s ruling.
“We think the judge got it right in this case. So we're very hopeful that the Court of Appeals will also make the same decision,” Schafer said. “If you look at all the other ballot items that have been filed for 2024, these 11 reproductive freedom measures are the only 11 where this has been a dispute, which makes this appear very politically and clearly motivated.”
Schafer said if Beetem’s ruling stands, the ACLU of Missouri will challenge Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft’s ballot summaries of the 11 initiative petitions as inaccurate. She said the legal dispute between Fitzpatrick and Bailey caused a delay in the process, which in turn affects the ability to gather the needed signatures.
“It adds time and of course, signature collection takes time,” Schafer said. “So those are all things to be considered. And that's why we hope that the courts will agree with us. And we'll move very quickly through this process.”