Montana Supreme Court overrules state attorney general again on abortion initiative - TAI News
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Montana State Capitol in Helena, Montana. (Wikimedia Commons)

Yet again, the Montana Supreme Court has overruled the state’s attorney general, moving a constitutional initiative to protect abortion rights one step closer to the November ballot. The 6-0 ruling on Monday shifts the action from litigation to legwork, triggering a statewide effort to gather the signatures of 60,000 registered voters by the June 21 deadline.

At issue in this latest ruling was ballot language. On March 18, the high court acted on an earlier suit by Montanans Securing Reproductive Rights, an ad hoc coalition backing the ballot measure that includes the American Civil Liberties Union of Montana, Forward Montana and Planned Parenthood Advocates of Montana. After a review of the group’s proposed ballot measure, conservative Republican Attorney General Austin Knudsen, a committed opponent of reproductive rights, decided the measure itself did not meet constitutional requirements. The justices disagreed in that March 18 ruling.

The initiative’s backers had submitted proposed ballot language with their initial filing, but Knudsen took no position on it in his first opinion, so the Supreme Court sent the matter back to him to settle ballot language.

Knudsen responded with language that sent the advocates straight back to the Supreme Court on March 26 asking that he be overruled. The justices gave Knudsen until Friday to respond and then on Monday issued the unanimous 15-page ruling written by Justice Ingrid Gustafson. Among its rebukes are a conclusion that Knudsen’s legal reasons “would lead to absurd results.” Five other justices concurred, but Justice James A. Rice abstained.

In the end though, the lengthy ruling amounted to a simple conclusion that Knudsen had submitted ballot wording that was unfair and misleading and failed to measure up to the requirements of state law.

The justices, however, did agree with Knudsen on a couple of minor points, but instead of sending the measure back to him to address those points, the court tweaked the language submitted by the measure’s backers to satisfy those issues. 

Here is the updated ballot language as ordered by the court:

“CI-__ would amend the Montana Constitution to expressly provide a right to make and carry out decisions about one’s own pregnancy, including the right to abortion. It would prohibit the government from denying or burdening the right to abortion before fetal viability. It would also prohibit the government from denying or burdening access to an abortion when a treating healthcare professional determines it is medically indicated to protect the pregnant patient’s life or health. CI-__ prevents the government from penalizing patients, healthcare providers, or anyone who assists someone in exercising their right to make and carry out voluntary decisions about their pregnancy.”

The ruling left the numerical designation blank, but the measure is being designated CI-14.

The proponents of the initiative responded to Monday’s ruling by shifting gears to begin work on the petition drive. The group has launched a website to sign up volunteers. State law requires that the petition must be signed by at least 10% of the voters in each of the state’s 40 legislative house districts.

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