Mississippi ‘Personhood’ Ballot Violates Rules

Wendy Norris

Rewire has found that a unique provision in Mississippi's Constitution prohibits modifying its Bill of Rights by voter referendum, despite the attempts by the "personhood" movement to do so.

It appears to be all over but the cryin’ for supporters of the Mississippi "egg-as-a-person" initiative to ban abortion. Rewire has discovered that a unique provision in the state’s Constitution prohibits modifying the Bill of Rights by voter referendum.

A fact known by the Personhood campaign and ignored for political reasons.

"The Mississippi Constitution is clear," said Jennifer Dalven, deputy director of the ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project. "You can’t change the Bill of Rights through the citizen initiative process."

Dalven also confirmed that the proposed ballot measure — which seeks to change the definition of a person to include a fertilized human egg — fails the constitutional law test in two ways: It expressly amends the Bill of Rights and it reduces the rights of women to control their medical decisions.

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"Personhood" activists have admitted their primary goal is to ban abortion services by challenging Roe v Wade on 14th Amendment grounds. They claim a fertilized egg should be defined as a "person" with civil rights and due process protections.

However, if passed, the controversial state ballot measure would also have far-reaching consequences for family planning services, fertility treatments and embryonic stem cell research. Even some of the most stalwart arch-conservative anti-choice movement leaders reject the "personhood" argument.

Yet, neither the Mississippi Secretary of State nor Attorney General put the kibosh on the unlawful "Definition of a Person" amendment when it was submitted Nov. 22, 2008 for official approval.

Jan Schaefer, spokesperson for Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood, deflected any responsibility for serving as a watchdog for the initiative process.

"The certificate of review issued by the AG does not constitute an endorsement of the Constitutional, statutory or substantive validity of the proposed initiative," said Schaefer.

The Secretary of State produces a lengthy Constitutional Initiative in Mississippi: A Citizen’s Guide [PDF] that plainly states the ballot limitation on page 3:

The initiative process cannot be used for any of the following:

1. To modify the Bill of Rights. [Emphasis by the Secretary of State]

Sec. Delbert Hosemann did not return calls for comment about how a measure that violates the initiative rules could get so far in the process and at what cost to county clerks charged with certifying tens of thousands of signatures.

For its part, Personhood USA, the official multi-state campaign by anti-choice activists to push the ballot measures, shrugged off the latest hitch in its efforts.  The national group’s co-director Keith Mason admitting knowing that the ballot measure didn’t pass legal muster but pushed the amendment forward anyway.

"There’s multiple reasons and facets to doing an initiative and it’s not necessarily to pass one," he said.

Mason claims the group has 100,000 petition signatures and would use that momentum to press forward with a statehouse bill as a "gun behind the door for legislators" even if the measure isn’t certified for the ballot.

"It’s not in their best interest to not be pro-life," warned Mason, a former Operation Rescue Truth Truck driver and veteran of the first-in-the-nation ballot campaign in Colorado that went down to a flaming 73-27 defeat in 2008.

Still, our discovery of the ballot’s unconstitutionality is just one of the more recent snags for the Mississippi group led by Les Riley, a tractor salesman and father of 10 who has raised a scant $11,290 for the cause.

The local affiliate, Personhood Mississippi, filed a last ditch federal lawsuit Feb. 4 seeking to extend the deadline to collect and certify the required 89,000 petition signatures to make the November ballot. The group has been circulating petitions for a year but has yet to submit thousands of voter signatures to the county clerks for verification by Feb. 13, a process which can take several weeks. Two prior petition efforts in 2005 and 2007 failed to win enough support to get the question before voters.

The group is being represented in federal court by the Liberty Counsel, a conservative Christian pro bono law firm founded by televangelist Rev. Jerry Falwell. Personhood attorney Stephen Crampton argues that a 1996 opinion on petition certification for citizen initiatives by then-Attorney General Mike Moore contradicts the state constitution provision for a 12-month signature collection process.

Current AG Hood is defending the state in the suit and agrees with his predecessor’s interpretation of the law.  But it all appears to be for naught since the ballot is likely to be struck down for violating the Bill of Rights amendment provision even if it manages to qualify its petitions.

The only option left to anti-choice activists is to press the Mississippi legislature to introduce its own constitutional amendment as a referendum, which is allowable under state law. However, a legislatively-referred initiative would need to pass both chambers by a super majority two-thirds vote before it can be placed on the ballot.

According to Nsombi Lambright, executive director of the ACLU of Mississippi, she isn’t detecting any enthusiasm among state lawmakers to walk into a political buzz saw as contentious as abortion. Especially as lawmakers grapple with far larger problems, including a nearly $500 million budget deficit and a 10.3 percent state unemployment rate.

Roundups Politics

Campaign Week in Review: Tim Kaine Outlines Plan to ‘Make Housing Fair’

Ally Boguhn

“A house is more than just a place to sleep. It's part of the foundation on which a family can build a life,” wrote Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA). “Where you live determines the jobs you can find, the schools your children can attend, the air you breathe and the opportunities you have. And when you are blocked from living where you want, it cuts to the core of who you are.”

Donald Trump made some controversial changes to his campaign staff this week, and Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) noted his commitment to better housing policies.

Trump Hires Controversial Conservative Media Figure

Republican presidential nominee Trump made two notable additions to his campaign staff this week, hiring Breitbart News’ Stephen Bannon as CEO and GOP pollster Kellyanne Conway as campaign manager.

“I have known Steve and Kellyanne both for many years. They are extremely capable, highly qualified people who love to win and know how to win,” said Trump in a Wednesday statement announcing the hires. “I believe we’re adding some of the best talents in politics, with the experience and expertise needed to defeat Hillary Clinton in November and continue to share my message and vision to Make America Great Again.”

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Both have been criticized as being divisive figures.

Conway, for example, previously advised then-client Todd Akin to wait out the backlash after his notorious “legitimate rape” comments, comparing the controversy to “the Waco with David Koresh situation where they’re trying to smoke him out with the SWAT teams.” According to the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), Conway is also “often cited by anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim organizations such as the think tank Center for Security Policy and NumbersUSA.”

Under Bannon’s leadership, “mainstream conservative website” Breitbart.com changed “into a cesspool of the alt-right,” suggested the publication’s former editor at large, Ben Shapiro, in a piece for the Washington Post‘s PostEverything. “It’s a movement shot through with racism and anti-Semitism.”

Speaking with ABC News this week, Kurt Bardella, who also previously worked with Bannon at Breitbart, alleged that Bannon had exhibited “nationalism and hatred for immigrants, people coming into this country to try to get a better life for themselves” during editorial calls.

“If anyone sat there and listened to that call, you’d think that you were attending a white supremacist rally,” said Bardella.

Trump’s new hire drew heated criticism from the Clinton campaign in a Wednesday press call. “The Breitbart organization has been known to defend white supremacists,” said Robby Mook, Clinton’s campaign manager. After pointing to an analysis from the SPLC linking Breitbart to the extremist alt-right movement, Mook listed a number of other controversial positions pushed by the site.

“Breitbart has compared the work of Planned Parenthood to the Holocaust. They’ve also repeatedly used anti-LGBT slurs in their coverage. And finally, like Trump himself, Breitbart and Bannon have frequently trafficked in all sorts of deranged conspiracy theories from touting that President Obama was not born in America to claiming that the Obama Administration was ‘importing more hating Muslims.’”

“It’s clear that [Trump’s] divisive, erratic, and dangerous rhetoric simply represents who he really is,” continued Mook.

Kaine Outlines Plan to “Make Housing Fair”

Clinton’s vice presidential nominee Kaine wrote an essay for CNN late last week explaining how the Clinton-Kaine ticket can “make housing fair” in the United States.

“A house is more than just a place to sleep. It’s part of the foundation on which a family can build a life,” wrote Kaine. “Where you live determines the jobs you can find, the schools your children can attend, the air you breathe and the opportunities you have. And when you are blocked from living where you want, it cuts to the core of who you are.”

Kaine shared the story of Lorraine, a young Black woman who had experienced housing discrimination, whom Kaine had represented pro bono just after completing law school.

“This is one issue that shows the essential role government can play in creating a fairer society. Sen. Ed Brooke, an African-American Republican from Massachusetts, and Sen. Walter Mondale, a white Democrat from Minnesota, came together to draft the Fair Housing Act, which protects people from discrimination in the housing market,” noted Kaine, pointing to the 1968 law.

“Today, more action is still needed. That’s why Hillary Clinton and I have a bold, progressive plan to fight housing inequities across Americaespecially in communities that have been left out or left behind,” Kaine continued.

The Virginia senator outlined some of the key related components of Clinton’s “Breaking Every Barrier Agenda,” including an initiative to offer $10,000 in down payment assistance to new homebuyers that earn less than the median income in a given area, and plans to “bolster resources to enforce Fair Housing laws and fight housing discrimination in all its forms.”

The need for fair and affordable housing is a pressing issue for people throughout the country.

“It is estimated that each year more than four million acts of [housing] discrimination occur in the rental market alone,” found a 2015 analysis by the National Fair Housing Alliance.

No county in the United States has enough affordable housing to accommodate the needs of those with low incomes, according to a 2015 report released by the Urban Institute. “Since 2000, rents have risen while the number of renters who need low-priced housing has increased,” explained the report. “Nationwide, only 28 adequate and affordable units are available for every 100 renter households with incomes at or below 30 percent of the area median income.”

What Else We’re Reading

CBS News’ Will Rahn penned a primer explaining Trump campaign CEO Bannon’s relationship to the alt-right.

White supremacists and the alt-right “rejoice[d]” after Trump hired Bannon, reported Betsy Woodruff and Gideon Resnick for the Daily Beast.

Clinton published an essay in Teen Vogue this week encouraging young people to fight for what they care about, learn from those with whom they disagree, and get out the vote.

“In calling for ‘extreme vetting’ of foreigners entering the United States, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump suggested a return to a 1950s-era immigration standard—since abandoned—that barred entry to people based on their political beliefs,” explained USA Today.

Trump wants to cut a visa program “his own companies have used … to bring in hundreds of foreign workers, including fashion models for his modeling agency who need exhibit no special skills,” according to a report by the New York Times.

A Koch-backed group “has unleashed an aggressive campaign to kill a ballot measure in South Dakota that would require Koch-affiliated groups and others like them to reveal their donors’ identities.”

News Law and Policy

Federal Judge Guts Florida GOP’s Omnibus Anti-Choice Law

Teddy Wilson

"For many people, Planned Parenthood is the only place they can turn to,” said Barbara Zdravecky, president and CEO of the Planned Parenthood of Southwest and Central Florida. “We may be the only place they can go in their community, or the only place that offers the screening or birth control method they need. No one should have their basic health care taken away."

A federal judge on Thursday permanently blocked two provisions of a Florida omnibus anti-choice law that banned Planned Parenthood from receiving state funds and required annual inspections of all clinics that provide abortion services, reported the Associated Press.

U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle issued an order in June to delay implementation of the law.

“The Supreme Court has repeatedly said that a government cannot prohibit indirectly—by withholding otherwise-available public funds—conduct that the government could not constitutionally prohibit directly,” Hinkle wrote in the 25-page ruling.  

Thursday’s decision came after Republican Gov. Rick Scott’s administration decided not to pursue further legal action to defend the law, and filed a joint motion to end the litigation.

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Hinkle issued a three page decision making the injunction permanent.

HB 1411, sponsored by Rep. Colleen Burton (R-Lakeland), was passed by the Republican-controlled state legislature in March.

The judge’s ruling nixed provisions in the law that banned state funding of abortion care and required yearly clinic inspections. Other provisions of the law that remain in effect include additional reporting requirements for abortion providers, redefining “third trimester,” and revising the care of fetal remains.

The GOP-backed anti-choice law has already had a damaging effect in Palm Beach County, where Planned Parenthood was forced to end a program that focused on teen dropout prevention.

Barbara Zdravecky, president and CEO of the Planned Parenthood of Southwest and Central Florida, said in a statement that the ruling was a “victory for thousands of Floridians” who rely on the organization for reproductive health care.

“For many people, Planned Parenthood is the only place they can turn to,” Zdravecky said. “We may be the only place they can go in their community, or the only place that offers the screening or birth control method they need. No one should have their basic health care taken away.”

A spokesperson for Scott told Reuters that the administration is “reviewing” the decision.


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