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Missouri Supreme Court May Have Dealt Big Blow To Bid To Overturn 8-Week Abortion Ban

Abortion rights activists on Thursday gathered near the Gateway Arch to protest the potential closure of Missouri's only abortion provider. They marched to the Wainwright State Office Building, where some activists went inside. May 30, 2019
File photo / Carolina Hidalgo
St. Louis Public Radio
The Missouri Supreme Court rejected a bid from the ACLU of Missouri that could have allowed them to start gathering signatures on July 18 for a referendum overturning an eight-week abortion ban.

The Missouri Supreme Court won’t reconsider an appeals court decision that effectively delays the ACLU of Missouri from gathering signatures to overturn Missouri’s recently passed eight-week abortion ban.

It’s a move that places the ACLU of Missouri’s referendum in serious jeopardy, because there may not be enough time to gather roughly 100,000 signatures to spark a 2020 election.

The Western District Court of Appeals ruled earlier this week that Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft didn’t have the authority to reject the ACLU’s referendum. 

Ultimately, Ashcroft and Attorney General Eric Schmitt did not ask the Missouri Supreme Court to take up that case — and the state’s high court made the appeals court decision final on Friday. But the Supreme Court also denied a bid from the ACLU to have Ashcroft approve a ballot title by July 18. 

Backers of the referendum cannot start gathering signatures for the referendum until they receive a ballot title from the secretary of state’s office. According to a filing from the ACLU of Missouri from earlier this week, Ashcroft could potentially wait until Aug. 14 to make that move — and the deadline to turn in signatures for the referendum is Aug. 28.

Ashcroft did not address the deadline issue in a statement released Friday afternoon.

“I will follow the court’s ruling,” Ashcroft said. “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.” 

Typically, groups that want to put something on the ballot need a few months to gather the necessary signatures in six of the state’s eight congressional districts. Accomplishing that feat in two weeks could be difficult, said Tony Rothert, the interim executive director of the ACLU of Missouri.

“It is no secret that Ashcroft’s agenda is banning abortion in Missouri,” Rothert said in a statement. “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. Ashcroft’s tenue as Missouri’s chief election officer continues to be marked by efforts to prevent Missourians from voting.”

The ACLU of Missouri’s statement went on to say it will “continue to push Ashcroft to do his job by certifying ballot language by July 18. Should he fail to do so, we will not let Missourians forget that he has taken the fate of the abortion ban away from the voters of Missouri.”

Next steps?

Even if the referendum effort doesn’t succeed, there could still be a push to place the abortion ban up for a statewide vote in 2020.

That’s because foes of the proposal could pursue an initiative petition to repeal the measure, where signatures wouldn’t have to be turned in until May 2020. One issue with that approach, though, is it would mean the abortion ban would go into effect — assuming that the law wouldn’t be struck down in court.

In the event that Ashcroft approves the ballot title earlier than Aug. 14 and the ACLU gathers enough signatures, it’s still possible that the secretary of state could reject the referendum. Ashcroft contended that the referendum couldn’t go forward because part of the abortion propoposal went into effect immediately.

He said the appeals court ruled “that the proper time for that would be after potentially thousands of petition pages have been circulated and tens of thousands of signatures have been gathered.”

“I don’t think that’s right,” Ashcroft said. “To me, it’s not just about my authority, but my responsibility. 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. From a plain reading of the Missouri Constitution, it was both my authority and responsibility to reject the referendum when I did.”

Besides banning abortion after eight weeks of pregnancy, the measure would also ban the procedure nearly completely if Roe v. Wade is overturned. Doctors who violate the bill’s provisions could face felony charges and jail time.

If that eight-week ban is struck down, there is language in the billthat would increase the amount of time in which a woman could get an abortion. The first tier is 14 weeks. If that is overturned by a court, the state would have an 18-week ban. And if that doesn’t hold up, Missouri would bar abortions after 20 weeks.

Follow Jason on Twitter: @jrosenbaum

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.