JEFFERSON CITY — Missouri’s Administrative Hearing Commission is typically a backwater of state government where the wheels of bureaucracy grind in darkness.
But the judicial agency will be in the spotlight beginning Monday when a hearing officer opens a high-profile case pitting Gov. Mike Parson’s administration against the state’s lone abortion provider, Planned Parenthood’s clinic in St. Louis.
Given the emotions and political stakes wrapped up in the issue of abortion, the commission is preparing for a week in the public eye.
At the request of the agency, St. Louis police are expected to block off a section of Seventh Street between Chestnut and Pine streets to accommodate potential protests that may accompany the hearing, which begins at 9 a.m. at the Wainwright State Office Building.
The commission also has made plans for a crowded hearing room by moving the proceedings to a larger space in the building and reserving some chairs for the media.
At issue is the Parson administration’s decision to allow Planned Parenthood’s license to perform abortions at its St. Louis facility to expire over concerns that include “failed abortions,” which required additional surgeries.
The clinic continues to offer abortion services while the case is pending before the commission.
If Planned Parenthood fails to convince the commission that the clinic should retain its license, Missouri could become the only state without a clinic that performs abortions.
The licensing issue has been a flashpoint for protesters, but it comes against the backdrop of a law signed by the Republican governor in May that would ban abortions at eight weeks of pregnancy, except in medical emergencies.
The law was temporarily blocked from going into effect by a federal judge in August.
For Planned Parenthood, the events leading up to Monday’s hearing started in January, when inspectors from the Department of Health and Senior Services, which is an arm of the executive branch, began seeking patient records.
In March, the department conducted an inspection of the facility and said it had found problems.
In May, with the facility’s license in limbo, Planned Parenthood submitted a plan to correct deficiencies. The organization then went to court asking for a judge to stop the state from closing the clinic.
The commission, which is appointed by the governor, has authority to hear cases and issue a decision when a state agency has refused to renew a license. The commission does not sit as a panel. Rather, each commissioner acts as an independent trial judge for the cases on his or her docket.
While most licensing hearings are completed in a single day, Commissioner Sreenivasa Rao Dandamudi has reserved five days for this administrative version of a trial.
Monday will kick off with opening statements from Planned Parenthood attorney Chuck Hatfield and Attorney General Eric Schmitt’s top trial attorney John Sauer.
Following that, Sauer is expected to call an estimated five witnesses, with an eye on wrapping up the state’s side of the case by Tuesday afternoon. Beginning Wednesday, Hatfield is expected to call on three witnesses, including Dr. Colleen McNicholas, chief medical officer of the clinic.
Planned Parenthood has said the Department of Health and Senior Services is attempting to use the regulatory process to end access to abortion.
“Over the summer, days after Gov. Parson signed one of the most restrictive bans on abortion in the country, the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services weaponized the licensing process to try and end abortion access in the state. Parson and the health department director, Randall Williams, recklessly turned health facility inspections into a tool to ban abortion and deny Planned Parenthood’s abortion license,” said Jesse Lawder, vice president of marketing and communications for Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Region and Southwest Missouri.
In particular, Lawder pointed to a conference call in which Parson campaign manager Steele Shippy, who was at that time the governor’s spokesman, told participants that the motive behind the agency’s efforts was to shut down the facility.
In late June, a judge allowed the clinic to continue operating while the licensing issue was heard by the hearing commission.
In anticipation of a Parson-led crackdown on abortion services in Missouri, Planned Parenthood opened an expanded facility this month across the Mississippi River in Illinois.
The 18,000-square-foot location in Fairview Heights is about 17 miles from the St. Louis clinic and began receiving patients this month for family planning services, cancer screenings, testing for sexually transmitted diseases and both surgical and medical abortions.
Planned Parenthood remodeled a medical office building for the new clinic; construction took more than a year but was done quietly to avoid protesters and delay, organization leaders said.