Timing threatens to stymie efforts to let the public vote on a new Missouri law banning abortions at eight weeks of pregnancy or later after the state Supreme Court on Friday refused to intervene to force the state's top election official to act quickly.
At issue is a push by the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri to put the anti-abortion law on the 2020 ballot. ACLU attorneys now worry that if Republican Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft doesn't act fast to process the petition, the organization could be left with as little as two weeks to collect the more than 100,000 signatures need to put the law to a vote.
The ACLU had asked Supreme Court judges to force Ashcroft to certify a ballot title for the referendum by July 18 in order to give the organization enough time to collect signatures before the Aug. 28 deadline. But the Supreme Court on Friday decided that it won't weigh in on the case.
"It's pretty apparent that the secretary, with an assist from the attorney general, is trying to run down the clock so the people don't have a chance to vote," ACLU Acting Executive Director Tony Rothert said. "We were hoping to get a court order to get them to move expeditiously, but at this point it's on them to do their jobs in a way that protects the constitutional right of the people to have a referendum."
A spokesman for Republican Attorney General Eric Schmitt, whose office is representing the secretary of state, declined to comment.
Ashcroft in June rejected the ACLU's referendum petition on abortion, as well as several other petitions, on constitutional grounds. An appellate court panel on Monday ruled Ashcroft was wrong to do so and allowed the ACLU to continue its campaign for a referendum.
Ashcroft has not appealed, but on Friday he said he interpreted the appellate court ruling to mean that he "didn't have the authority to reject the referendum when I did — that the proper time for that would be after potentially thousands of petition pages have been circulated and tens of thousands of signatures have been gathered."
"I will follow the court's ruling," Ashcroft said in a statement. "My office will prepare the proposed ballot summary statement and forward it to the attorney general's office for review and follow the timeline that the law requires."
Most of the wide-ranging abortion law, including the eight-week ban, takes effect Aug. 28. The ACLU needs to collect enough signatures by then to put the law on hold pending a public vote.
ACLU attorneys wrote in court filings to Supreme Court judges that unless they intervene, Ashcroft's office "might well lose the case but nonetheless succeed in keeping the referendum off the ballot."
The legal dispute over the abortion law comes as the state's only abortion clinic fights its own legal battle to continue providing the service, despite a licensing dispute with the state health department .