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Montana Supreme Court allows abortion ballot initiative to move forward

Montana’s Supreme Court said a proposed ballot measure to protect abortion can continue through the initiative process, overruling the state’s attorney general and bringing the measure one step closer to the ballot.

In a 6-1 decision released Monday, the justices ruled that Attorney General Austin Knudsen (R) exceeded his authority when he concluded the ballot measure was invalid because it included multiple subjects that should have been separated.

Knudsen in January called the measure “legally insufficient” and blocked it from moving forward because he said it improperly “logrolls multiple distinct political choices into a single initiative.”

But Monday’s ruling authored by Chief Justice Ingrid Gustafson said the measure, which the court referred to as constitutional initiative CI-14, could proceed.

“CI-14 effects a single change to the Montana Constitution on a single subject: the right to make decisions about one’s own pregnancy, including the right to abortion. If CI-14 is placed on the ballot, voters may ultimately agree or disagree with the proposed change that CI-14 offers, but they will be able to understand what they are being asked to vote upon because CI-14 does not effect two or more changes that are not substantive and closely related,” Gustafson wrote.

Abortion is legal in Montana at any point before fetal viability because of a 25-year-old state Supreme Court ruling that found the right to privacy in the state’s constitution also protected abortion.

But abortion rights advocates are pushing for extra protections from the GOP governor and GOP-controlled Legislature, and don’t want to leave courts as their last line of defense. Abortion rights have won every time they have been on the ballot since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade.

Montanans Securing Reproductive Rights (MSRR), backed by Planned Parenthood Advocates of Montana, submitted a constitutional amendment that “affirms the right to make and carry out decisions about one’s own pregnancy, including the right to abortion” and prohibits the government from “denying or burdening the right to abortion before fetal viability.”

In ruling against the state, the justices directed Knudsen to “prepare a ballot statement consistent with the applicable statutory requirements and forward the statement to the Montana Secretary of State within five days” of the opinion, the next step toward allowing supporters of the measure to begin collecting signatures.

But the court declined to approve interim ballot language submitted by MSRR, and instead directed the attorney general to approve the language. Knudsen’s office could find the language doesn’t comply with legal requirements and rewrite it, which would likely trigger more litigation.

If the attorney general approves the language, it would need to clear legislative committees before initiative supporters can start to collect and submit more than 60,000 verified signatures before June 21.

“Montanans deserve safe and private access to health care without interference from the government, and MSRR encourages Attorney General Austin Knudsen to swiftly affirm the fair, clear language that was submitted in November 2023,” the group said in a statement.

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