WASHINGTON — The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to announce soon whether it will wade into the controversy over an effort to define “personhood” in the Oklahoma Constitution.
Proponents of a personhood amendment want the justices to determine whether the Oklahoma Supreme Court wrongfully blocked a petition drive to get the question on a statewide ballot. The Oklahoma court ruled the initiative, aimed at outlawing abortion, would violate the U.S. Constitution.
Four of the nine U.S. Supreme Court justices would have to agree to hear an appeal of the Oklahoma court's decision.
Ryan Kiesel, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma, said it was “extremely unlikely” that the U.S. Supreme Court would take the case.
Kiesel said there were no federal issues for the U.S. Supreme Court to consider. Oklahoma has the right to govern its own ballot initiatives, Kiesel said, and federal courts have given states broad authority in that regard.
The decision by the Oklahoma court to block the petition, Kiesel said in an interview, was “a matter of efficiency” since signatures on initiative petitions are expensive to collect and verify. The Oklahoma court protected the initiative process from a ballot question that was “manifestly unconstitutional,” he said.
Mathew Staver, an attorney for Liberty Counsel, the group that is asking the U.S. Supreme Court to intervene, said the Oklahoma court had actually undermined the initiative process and denied residents the right to vote. The Oklahoma court, he said in an interview, acted prematurely in ruling on the abortion issue before a state question was even approved or implemented by the Legislature.
“The initiative itself doesn't affect abortion,” Staver said.
If the personhood amendment were approved by Oklahoma voters and the Legislature implemented it, then a constitutional challenge to abortion restrictions could be made, Staver said.
That is a goal of personhood proponents — to give the Supreme Court a case in which it could revisit the landmark Roe v. Wade decision.
The personhood proposal would define human life as beginning at conception and grant all rights, including those of equal protection and due process, to those meeting the definition. As drafted, the initiative petition said the proposal “generally prohibits abortion.”
Backers of the personhood proposal had sought to get signatures of about 155,000 registered voters to put the question on the Nov. 6 ballot.
Just as proponents began gathering signatures, six Oklahomans challenged the initiative petition, with the backing of the Center for Reproductive Rights and the ACLU.
The Oklahoma Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the petition was “void on its face” and “clearly unconstitutional.”
“The United States Supreme Court has spoken on this issue,” Chief Justice Steven Taylor wrote.
“The states are duty bound to follow its interpretation of the law.”
Staver said the U.S. Supreme Court in a 1989 Missouri case upheld language in an abortion law declaring that life begins at conception since the language did not regulate abortion.
In that and subsequent cases, Staver argued in a brief, the high court has rejected the “wholesale facial invalidation of statutes that challengers claim might, in some instances, restrict abortion rights.”
Staver also has challenged the Oklahoma court's ruling on First Amendment grounds, saying the initiative petition was “core political speech” that deserved constitutional protection.
Kiesel, with the Oklahoma ACLU, dismissed Staver's argument, saying the personhood group “is trying to manufacture a federal question for the Supreme Court to latch on to.”