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Abortion fight sparks revamp of Missouri petition laws

LIBERTY, Mo. (AP) — Laws used by Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft last year to slow the collection of signatures on a referendum seeking to overturn the state’s restrictive abortion laws are unconstitutional, a circuit court judge has ruled.

Cole County Circuit Court Judge Jon Beetem said in his ruling that Ashcroft did not give opponents of a law banning abortion after eight weeks enough time to collect signatures.

A combination of state laws prohibits petitioners from collecting signatures until after the secretary of state’s office has certified the referendum’s official title.

The American Civil Liberties Union and the No Bans on Choice Committee sued Ashcroft, a Republican, after he did not approve the title until August, saying his delay in certifying the title gave them only two weeks to gather the 100,000 signatures needed to get the issue on this year’s ballot.

“The State may not constitutionally delay the circulation of a referendum petition for the purpose of certifying a ballot title,” Beetem ruled on Friday.

He said the laws giving the secretary of state power to delay signature gathering conflicts with the constitutional right of citizens to overturn laws through the referendum process.

The petition drive was started after Gov. Mike Parson, a Republican, signed a law last year that bans abortions at eight weeks, except in medical emergencies. A federal appeals court is considering a separate lawsuit to overturn the law.

Currently, the only facility in Missouri that performs abortions is the Planned Parenthood clinic at 4251 Forest Park Avenue in St. Louis’ Central West End.

Although Beetem’s ruling was sparked by the abortion debate, it applies to all referendum petitions in the future.

“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,” Sara Baker, policy director of the ACLU of Missouri, said in a statement. ” Beetem’s decision to uphold those principles ensures that all Missourians have a direct remedy to government overreach.”

When asked Monday whether Ashcroft would appeal, spokeswoman Maura Browning said the office was reviewing the decision. Ashcroft won re-election to a second term in November.

MetroSTL.com staff contributed to this report.

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