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Abortion initiative reignites Republicans' frustrations with Montana Supreme Court

 Montana Capitol
Shaylee Ragar
Montana Capitol

A campaign for a constitutional abortion rights amendment in Montana may soon begin collecting signatures to put the measure before voters this fall. But that process has been pushed back by Republican officials challenging the initiative’s content and by legal rulings from the Montana Supreme Court.

Montana Free Press reporter Mara Silvers joined MTPR’s Austin Amestoy to break down the political dynamics at play.

Austin Amestoy: Mara, Republicans have challenged several parts of this ballot proposal, which would explicitly enshrine abortion protections in Montana’s Constitution. How has this issue rekindled Republican frustrations with the Montana Supreme Court?

Mara Silvers: Right. Many people following politics in the last few years have probably heard Republicans say that they’re getting short-changed in the courts as many of their legislative priorities fail to pass legal muster. Those criticisms are now cropping up again in this case.

First, the Montana Supreme Court overruled Republican Attorney General Austin Knudsen on the substance of the initiative, after he found it was legally insufficient. Then, last week, the court threw out his proposed ballot statement that’s supposed to describe the issue to voters, and opted to write a new version. And also, in the ruling last week, the court said that a legislative review of the proposal was not called for in this situation, based on a plain-text reading of the law that Republicans passed.

Republican lawmakers made claims about being sidestepped and also accused the court of a biased ruling in favor of politically progressive groups.

Austin Amestoy: What’s been the response to the Republican reaction you’re describing here?

Mara Silvers: Well, Montanans Securing Reproductive Rights (MSRR), made up of Planned Parenthood’s political arm in Montana, the ACLU of Montana and Forward Montana, have said officials are basically playing political games by running out the clock to delay this process, giving the group less time to collect signatures to get the measure on the ballot.

The legislative review itself could have taken up to 14 days from the time lawmakers receive the finalized petition from the Secretary of State. That’s a long time in the world of a ballot campaign up against a deadline.

Austin Amestoy: I want to zoom out and talk about ballot initiatives in general. The process for this initiative has been pretty drawn out and convoluted. Is that true for anyone trying to put an issue before voters?

Mara Silvers: Well, for context, MSRR originally proposed this initiative in November, about a year before the general election. And some people who have brought other ballot initiatives have said that’s just not enough time to jump through all the hoops by the various deadlines. But others say that, basically, the process is prohibitive and can be manipulated by political groups. Matthew Monforton is a Bozeman attorney who tried to put property tax caps on the ballot in the last few elections. He put it to me this way.

Matthew Monforton in an interview for Montana Free Press: This is par for the course for any initiative that does not meet with the approval of the establishment. So, there are definitely initiatives that get more favorable treatment than either the abortion-right initiative or, in my case, the property-tax initiative that we were proposing, because there are interest groups in Helena that oppose these initiatives — interest groups with power.

Austin Amestoy: Just so we can leave listeners on some semblance of solid ground, can you reiterate for us the status of that ballot proposal to protect abortion access? Where does it stand and what is its path forward?

Mara Silvers: MSRR has to begin the challenging process of collecting more than 60,000 signatures from registered voters across 40 House districts by June 21. That’s a pretty tall order, and most campaigns try to aim for well over that — closer to 80,000 signatures, for example, or even more, in case any signatures can’t be verified. MSRR has said it plans to launch its signature-gathering campaign within a week, but has not given a specific date yet.

Copyright 2024 Montana Public Radio. To see more, visit Montana Public Radio.

Austin Amestoy
Mara Silvers