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Pro-choice advocates challenge legality of referendum laws

Advocates who unsuccessfully sought to give voters the final say in a sweeping anti-abortion law are challenging the legality of Missouri’s statutes on the referendum process. 

On Thursday, the ACLU of Missouri and No Bans on Choice committee filed a lawsuit against Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft in Cole County. A judge has yet to be assigned the case. 

The legal challenge alleged state statutes are inconsistent with the Missouri Constitution. Advocates are seeking to have two provisions in law ruled unconstitutional. 

“Certain parts of Chapter 116, Missouri Revised Statutes, award to State officials 51 days of the minimum 90 days constitutionally reserved to the people for the purpose of referendum petition circulation and signature collection,” the lawsuit stated.

Provisions in state law give various elected officials a combined 51 days to complete specific tasks before a referendum can be approved to gather signatures. In contrast, the Missouri Constitution provides “not more than [90] days after the final adjournment” for a petition to be filed.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs alleged by setting forth the deadline for filing, the constitution “ordains that the people will have a specific minimum period of time available for the circulation of a referendum petition and the procurement of signatures.”

The Secretary of State’s Office declined to comment on the lawsuit. 

“I am saddened in our society today, that frequently when organizations lose, their normal response is to whine and claim that the rules should not apply to them,” Ashcroft told The Missouri Times.

The referendum attempt for HB 126 has been a rollercoaster ride for stakeholders. 

In June, Ashcroft rejected the referendum petition filed by the ACLU of Missouri “for failure to comply with the requirements of the Missouri Constitution.” The issue, he said, is the emergency clause attached to the bill. The emergency clause resulted in a portion of the bill going into effect immediately after Republican Gov. Mike Parson signed it. The provision requires both parents to be notified if a minor seeks an abortion.

The vast majority of the provisions — banning abortion at eight weeks, along with “nestled” components to include restrictions at 14, 18, and 20 weeks — will go into effect on Aug. 28.

The Western District Court of Appeals ordered the state to withdraw its rejection of the petition. The court ruled Ashcroft “was without authority” to deny the referendum based on constitutional grounds at that time. The Missouri Supreme Court refused to take up the case

That started the approval process over. Once the referendum was approved to form, it was sent to the state auditor and attorney general for various tasks before the secretary of state could approve ballot language.

On Aug. 14, Ashcroft issued ballot language for the referendum, giving advocates less than two weeks to gather more than 100,000 signatures.   

The No Bans On Choice Committee called it an “impossible task” to gather and submit signatures from 5 percent of legal voters in six of eight congressional districts — at least 100,126 Missourians — by Aug. 28 to put it on the ballot.

The legal challenge is pro-choice advocates next step in the ongoing fight. 

Planned Parenthood and the ACLU have also filed a lawsuit in an attempt to stop the ban altogether.