JEFFERSON CITY — Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft used an unconstitutional set of laws last year to derail an effort to roll back newly approved abortion restrictions in Missouri.
Cole County Circuit Judge Jon Beetem found that Ashcroft, a Republican recently elected to a second term, used the laws to shorten the time frame needed to collect signatures required for a ballot initiative sought by opponents of the abortion law.
In the ruling, Beetem found that Ashcroft should have given the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri and other groups more time to circulate their proposed ballot initiative.
“The State may not constitutionally delay the circulation of a referendum petition for the purpose of certifying a ballot title,” Beetem wrote in his Dec. 4 ruling.
The decision applies to all referendum petitions moving forward.
“All Missourians, regardless of their political views, should be pleased to see these statutes go,” said ACLU Legal Director Tony Rothert.
Missouri allows residents to collect signatures, prior to a law taking effect, to trigger a public vote. Ashcroft approved the referendum effort in mid-August, giving supporters just two weeks to turn in 100,000 signatures.
The lawsuit against Ashcroft is the latest chapter in a long-running battle over abortion rights in Missouri, where both the House and Senate are controlled by Republicans.
The state Department of Health and Senior Services, which is controlled by Gov. Mike Parson, last year unsuccessfully attempted to pull the abortion license of Planned Parenthood in St. Louis, the only abortion clinic in the state, because of a list of deficiencies the department has cited.
The law signed by the Republican governor bans abortions at eight weeks of pregnancy, except in medical emergencies. There are no exceptions for rape or incest.
After Parson signed the bill, the ACLU of Missouri, Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Region and NARAL Pro-Choice Missouri formed the No Bans on Choice Committee, which sought to repeal the law through a referendum.
Ashcroft initially rejected the effort, saying that because part of the law had taken effect immediately, the rest of the pending law could not be put to a vote.
He lost that argument in court, but Ashcroft was not forced to allow signature collection to begin right away.
In the ruling, Beetem said the law granting Ashcroft the power to “derail” signature gathering is in conflict with the constitution, which gives citizens the opportunity to overturn laws approved by the Legislature.
Beetem also agreed with the ACLU that the short time window makes it more expensive for citizens to place a referendum on the ballot.
“The court finds that every day the time for signature collection on a referendum petition is reduced, the cost of gathering enough signatures to get the referendum before voters will go up,” he wrote.
ACLU Policy Director Sara Baker said the ruling ensures Missourians have a direct remedy to government overreach.
“The referendum process which acts as guardrails for the people to halt their government from enacting laws that are harmful, overzealous, and out of touch is a bedrock principle of the Missouri Constitution,” she said.
A spokeswoman for Ashcroft said the decision is under review.
The legislation is House Bill 126.