Analysis Law and Policy

At What Point Is It Unethical for States to Defend Blatantly Unconstitutional Abortion Restrictions?

Jessica Mason Pieklo

The Idaho attorney general's office warned lawmakers their pre-viability ban was unconstitutional, but lawmakers passed it anyway. So how then can the law be defended ethically in court?

Add Idaho to the growing list of states like North Dakota and Alabama amassing enormous legal fees defending unconstitutional anti-abortion restrictions.

As reported by the Associated Press, the latest attorneys’ bill came Thursday when U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill ruled the state owed more than $376,000 to attorneys for Jennie Linn McCormack, the Pocatello woman who had been unsuccessfully prosecuted for a felony because police claimed she had an illegal abortion. McCormack’s lawsuit challenged the constitutionality of the prosecution and several other Idaho abortion restrictions, including the state’s so-called “fetal pain” pre-viability ban. The lawsuit resulted in a federal court overturning some of those restrictions, including the pre-viability ban.

Because some of McCormack’s case is still pending with the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, the state won’t have to actually pay the nearly $400,000 immediately. That’s in part because the outcome of that appeal could determine the final cost. Should the state ultimately succeed before the Ninth Circuit, the amount it owes McCormack’s attorney could be reduced. Likewise, should McCormack succeed at the Ninth Circuit, the fee could go up with the state ordered to pay McCormack’s appellate costs as well.

Since 2000 and prior to the fees associated with McCormack’s case, the State of Idaho had already spent about $365,000 defending other abortion restrictions, including challenges to a parental consent law, a so-called “partial birth abortion” law, and a law that would have denied Medicaid coverage for medically necessary abortions. In addition to the almost $400,000 to defend those laws, it was also ordered to pay an additional $446,000 in attorneys’ fees to the plaintiffs in those three cases.

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But McCormack’s case should raise some ethical questions within Idaho’s attorney general’s office and with the public at large. According to the AP report, the attorney general’s office warned lawmakers that a pre-viability ban was unconstitutional, but lawmakers passed it anyway. Now, it’s the job of the attorney general to defend state law, but attorneys also have a corresponding ethical obligation to not advance frivolous claims or defenses. Rule 3.1 of the Idaho Rules of Professional Responsibility dictates that “[A] lawyer shall not bring or defend a proceeding, or assert or controvert an issue therein, unless there is a basis in law and fact for doing so that is not frivolous, which includes a good faith argument for an extension, medication, or reversal of existing law.” The rule is designed to give attorneys enough room to creatively advocate on behalf of their clients while preserving the basic compromise that is supposed to form the foundation of all litigation: attorneys can advocate zealously, but they must do so in good faith.

In McCormack’s case, state attorneys argue they didn’t violate any ethical obligation, because instead of arguing over the merits of the so-called fetal pain law their defense strategy was to challenge McCormack and her attorney on standing, the procedural requirement that allows an individual to bring a claim. But that’s a smoke-and-mirrors argument that maybe meets the low bar for ethical clearance set by Rule 3.1 but arguably violates its spirit. McCormack challenged Idaho’s pre-viability ban and has been successful, for now, in getting the law blocked. And while that challenge was at times wrapped up with McCormack’s other, more visible challenge to the constitutionality of the state’s illegal abortion statute, the court did eventually rule on the constitutionality of the state’s pre-viability ban. That means the substance and merits of the law was before the court, and the attorney’s general office can’t claim their strategy of initially avoiding the merits of the law in favor of a stronger, procedural argument did not function as a defense of that law.

State rules of professional responsibility are aspirational—they are standards the profession hopes to maintain. Absent administrative complaints to the state’s governing board, they don’t, by themselves, create the ability to hold lawyers responsible for their conduct. The vehicle to do that is a legal malpractice lawsuit, and malpractice claims are based on a standard of negligence. Amazingly, violating an ethical rule is not considered per-se negligence, which means it can’t be the basis for a malpractice lawsuit. Stated another way, absent some really big screw-up by lawyers, there’s not much the public can do to police their conduct. They are left to do it themselves. And as we’re seeing in places like Idaho, that’s an expensive proposition. It also highlights why the fight over the so-called “science” behind the latest rounds of pre-viability bans is so critically important. Without it, anti-choice litigators cannot ethically claim they are legitimately advancing any “good faith argument for an extension, medication, or reversal of existing law” when they claim any abortion restriction that bans the procedure pre-viability is constitutional in the face of Roe v. Wade.

News Abortion

Abortion Providers Could Recoup Millions From Wisconsin After Fighting Unconstitutional Anti-Choice Law

Michelle D. Anderson

The providers seeking money include Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin, Inc., Planned Parenthood Federation of America, and Milwaukee Women's Medical Services, which conducts business as Affiliated Medical Services.

Abortion providers serving Wisconsin residents could recoup nearly $1.8 million in legal fees they amassed while fighting an anti-choice law that was first blocked in 2013. However, spokespeople for the State of Wisconsin have raised the possibility of an undisclosed settlement.

In a U.S. District Court filing dated July 28, the providers requested an award of “attorneys’ fees, costs and expenses” that could be recouped under the Civil Rights Attorneys’ Fee Awards Act of 1976. On Wednesday in response, Wisconsin Attorney General Brad Schimel asked the court to extend the due date for the state to respond from August 18 to September 1. The request was granted, according to court documents.

“The parties are currently discussing settlement of the plaintiffs’ motion. An extension of the briefing schedule would allow the parties the opportunity to explore the possibility of a settlement of this issue,” Schimel said in the court filing.

The providers seeking money include Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin, Inc., Planned Parenthood Federation of America, and Milwaukee Women’s Medical Services, which conducts business as Affiliated Medical Services. The sum requested includes $1.7 million in attorneys’ fees, $44,253 in billable costs and $22,545 in out-of-pocket expenses, according to the court filing.

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The providers amassed the fees fighting Wisconsin Act 37 of 2013, a Republican-initiated law that required doctors to have hospital admitting privileges within 30 miles of the location where an abortion was to be performed.

U.S. District Judge William Conley of the Western District of Wisconsin blocked the law’s enforcement soon after Republican Gov. Scott Walker signed it in 2013.

The state attorney general twice appealed to the Seventh Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, which affirmed the lower court’s decision both times; the U.S. Supreme Court also declined to take the case a day after overturning a similar provision in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt.

In a Court of Appeals opinion issued in November 2015, the court said there was no evidence that “transfer agreements provide inferior protection to the health of women undergoing abortion compared to admitting privileges.” The opinion concluded by saying the unconstitutional statute was burdensome and curtailed citizens’ constitutional right to an abortion.

“The statute may not be irrational, yet may still impose an undue burden—a burden excessive in relation to the aims of the statute and the benefits likely to be conferred by it— and if so it is unconstitutional,” the court said.

If not blocked, the law would have forced pregnant people in various parts of the state to travel at least an extra 200 miles round trip to access legal abortion, according to a previous Rewire report.

Johnny Koremenos, a spokesperson for Schimel, had indicated in statements to the Journal Sentinel and the Wisconsin State Journal earlier this month that the state would fight the charges for legal fees. He said Schimel would challenge the providers’ request “to ensure that the state is not paying more than it should be for those fees,” according to local news reports.

Koremenos did not respond to Rewire’s request for comment.

Walker also supported fighting the fees, his spokesperson told the Journal Sentinel.

Ismael Ozanne, the district attorney for Dane County, was also named as a defendant in the providers’ lawsuit, along with several state medical examining board members.

Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin spokeswoman Iris Riis told Rewire the money Planned Parenthood is seeking in this case is only a recoup of the legal fees already spent fighting the unconstitutional admitting privileges law.

“There would not be any leftover money to allocate to services or any fund. It would just cover what was already spent. Governor Walker’s administration appealed multiple definitive rulings, wasting countless taxpayer dollars in the process. That action also drove up our legal costs,” Riis said.

Riis said the plaintiffs do not know when Conley will issue the ruling that will determine whether Schimel will have to compensate them for legal fees.

Andrew Wiseman, a deputy clerk in the U.S. District Court, Western District of Wisconsin, told Rewire the court could not offer a prediction about the date of Conley’s ruling.

Affiliated Medical Services, which operates a clinic in Milwaukee, is being represented by the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin, while private attorneys are representing Planned Parenthood.

Commentary Politics

It’s Not Just Trump: The Right Wing’s Increasing Reliance on Violence and Intimidation as a Path to Power

Jodi Jacobson

Republicans have tried to pass Trump's most recent comments off as a joke because to accept the reality of that rhetoric would mean going to the core of their entire party platform and their strategies. The GOP would have to come to terms with the toll its power plays are taking on the country writ large.

This week, GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump stated that, if Hillary Clinton were elected and able to nominate justices to the Supreme Court, “Second Amendment people” might be able to do something about it. After blaming the media for “being dishonest” in reporting his statement, the Trump campaign has since tried to pass the comment off as a joke. However characterized, Trump’s statement is not only part of his own election strategy, but also a strategy that has become synonymous with those of candidates, legislators, and groups affiliated with the positions of the GOP.

To me, the phrase “Second Amendment people” translates to those reflexively opposed to any regulation of gun sales and ownership and who feel they need guns to arm themselves against the government. I’m not alone: The comment was widely perceived as an implicit threat of violence against the Democratic presidential nominee. Yet, GOP party leaders have failed to condemn his comment, with House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) agreeing with the Trump campaign that it was “a joke gone bad.”

Republicans have tried to pass it off as a joke because to accept the reality of their rhetoric would mean going to the core of their entire party platform and their strategies. The GOP would have to come to terms with the toll its power plays are taking on the country writ large. The rhetoric is part of a longer and increasingly dangerous effort by the GOP, aided by corporate-funded right-wing organizations and talk show hosts, to de-legitimize the federal government, undermine confidence in our voting system, play on the fears held by a segment of the population about tyranny and the loss of liberty, and intimidate people Republican leaders see as political enemies.

Ironically, while GOP candidates and leaders decry the random violence of terrorist groups like Daeshitself an outgrowth of desperate circumstances, failed states, and a perceived or real loss of powerthey are perpetuating the idea of loss and desperation in the United States and inciting others to random violence against political opponents.

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Trump’s “Second Amendment” comment came after a week of efforts by the Trump campaign to de-legitimize the 2016 presidential election well before a single vote has been cast. On Monday, August 1, after polls showed Trump losing ground, he asserted in an Ohio campaign speech that “I’m afraid the election’s gonna be rigged, I have to be honest.”

Manufactured claims of widespread voter fraud—a problem that does not exist, as several analyses have shown—have nonetheless been repeatedly pushed by the GOP since the 2008 election. Using these disproven claims as support, GOP legislatures in 20 states have passed new voter restrictions since 2010, and still the GOP claims elections are suspect, stoking the fears of average voters seeking easy answers to complex problems and feeding the paranoia of separatist and white nationalist groups. Taking up arms against an illegitimate government is, after all, exactly what “Second Amendment remedies” are for.

Several days before Trump’s Ohio speech, Trump adviser Roger Stone suggested that the result of the election might be “illegitimate,” leading to “widespread civil disobedience” and a “bloodbath,” a term I personally find chilling.

Well before these comments were made, there was the hate-fest otherwise known as the Republican National Convention (RNC), during which both speakers and supporters variously called for Clinton to be imprisoned or shot, and during which New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a man not widely known for his high ethical standards or sense of accountability, led a mock trial of Hillary Clinton to chants from the crowd of “lock her up.” And that was the tame part.

The number of times Trump has called for or supported violence at his rallies is too long to catalogue here. His speeches are rife with threats to punch opponents; after the Democratic National Convention, he threatened to hit speakers who critiqued his policies “so hard their heads would spin.” He also famously promised to pay the legal fees of anyone who hurt protesters at his rallies and defended former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski after allegations surfaced that Lewandowski had assaulted a female Breitbart reporter.

A recent New York Times video compiled over a year of reporting at Trump rallies revealed the degree to which many of Trump’s supporters unapologetically express violence and hatred—for women, immigrants, and people of color. And Trump eschews any responsibility for what has transpired, repeatedly claiming he does not condone violence—his own rhetoric, that of his associates, and other evidence notwithstanding.

Still, to focus only on Trump is to ignore a broader and deeper acceptance, even encouragement of, incitement to violence by the GOP that began long before the 2016 campaign.

In 2008, in what may appear to be a now forgotten but eerily prescient peek at the 2016 RNC, then-GOP presidential nominee Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), and his running mate, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, used race-baiting and hints at violence to gin up their crowds. First, Palin accused Obama of “palling around with terrorists,” a claim that became part of her stump speech. As a result, Frank Rich then wrote in the New York Times:

At McCain-Palin rallies, the raucous and insistent cries of “Treason!” and “Terrorist!” and “Kill him!” and “Off with his head!” as well as the uninhibited slinging of racial epithets, are actually something new in a campaign that has seen almost every conceivable twist. They are alarms. Doing nothing is not an option.

Nothing was in fact done. No price was paid by GOP candidates encouraging this kind of behavior.

In 2009, during congressional debates on the Affordable Care Act, opponents of the health-care law, who’d been fed a steady diet of misleading and sensationalist information, were encouraged by conservative groups like FreedomWorks and Right Principles, as well as talk show hosts such as Sean Hannity, to disrupt town hall meetings on the legislation held throughout the country. Protesters turned up at some town hall meetings armed with rifles with the apparent intention of intimidating those who, in supporting health reform, disagreed with them. In some cases, what began as nasty verbal attacks turned violent. As the New York Times then reported: “[M]embers of Congress have been shouted down, hanged in effigy and taunted by crowds. In several cities, noisy demonstrations have led to fistfights, arrests and hospitalizations.”

In 2010, as first reported by the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent, Tea Party candidate Sharron Angle, in an unsuccessful bid to unseat Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), suggested that armed insurrection would be the answer if “this Congress keeps going the way it is.” In response to a request for clarification by the host of the radio show on which she made her comments, Angle said:

You know, our Founding Fathers, they put that Second Amendment in there for a good reason and that was for the people to protect themselves against a tyrannical government. And in fact Thomas Jefferson said it’s good for a country to have a revolution every 20 years.

I hope that’s not where we’re going, but, you know, if this Congress keeps going the way it is, people are really looking toward those Second Amendment remedies and saying my goodness what can we do to turn this country around? I’ll tell you the first thing we need to do is take Harry Reid out.

Also in 2010, Palin, by then a failed vice-presidential candidate, created a map “targeting” congressional Democrats up for re-election, complete with crosshairs. Palin announced the map to her supporters with this exhortation: “Don’t retreat. Instead, reload!”

One of the congresspeople on that map was Arizona Democrat Gabby Giffords, who in the 2010 Congressional race was challenged by Jesse Kelly, a Palin-backed Tea Party candidate. Kelly’s campaign described an event this way:

Get on Target for Victory in November. Help remove Gabrielle Giffords from office. Shoot a fully automatic M16 with Jesse Kelly.

Someone took this literally. In January 2011, Jared Lee Loughner went on a shooting rampage in a Tuscon grocery store at which Giffords was meeting with constituents. Loughner killed six people and injured 13 others, including Giffords who, as a result of permanent disability resulting from the shooting, resigned from Congress. Investigators later found that Loughner had for months become obsessed with government conspiracy theories such as those spread by GOP and Tea Party candidates.

These events didn’t stop GOP candidates from fear-mongering and suggesting “remedies.”  To the contrary, the goading continued. As the Huffington Post‘s Sam Stein wrote in 2011:

Florida Senate candidate Mike McCalister, who is running against incumbent Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), offered a variation of the much-lampooned line during a speech before the Palms West Republican Club earlier this week.

“I get asked sometimes where do I stand on the Second and 10th Amendment, and I have a little saying,” he declared. “We need a sign at every harbor, every airport and every road entering our state: ‘You’re entering a 10th Amendment-owned and -operated state, and justice will be served with the Second Amendment.’” [Emphasis added.]

These kinds of threats by the GOP against other legislators and even the president have gone unpunished by the leadership of the party. Not a word has come from either House Speaker Paul Ryan or Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell decrying these statements, and the hyperbole and threats have only continued. Recently, for example, former Illinois GOP Congressman Joe Walsh tweeted and then deleted this threat to the president after the killing of five police officers in Dallas, Texas:

“3 Dallas cops killed, 7 wounded,” former congressman Joe Walsh, an Illinois Republican, wrote just before midnight in a tweet that is no longer on his profile. “This is now war. Watch out Obama. Watch out black lives matter punks. Real America is coming after you.”
Even after the outcry over his recent remarks, Trump has escalated the rhetoric against both President Obama and against Clinton, calling them the “founders of ISIS.” And again no word from the GOP leadership.
This rhetoric is part of a pattern used by the right wing within and outside elections. Anti-choice groups, for example, consistently misrepresent reproductive health care writ large, and abortion specifically. They “target” providers with public lists of names, addresses, and other personal information. They lie, intimidate, and make efforts to both vilify and stigmatize doctors. When this leads to violence, as David Cohen wrote in Rolling Stone this week, the anti-choice groups—and their GOP supporters—shrug off any responsibility.
Some gun rights groups also use this tactic of intimidation and targeting to silence critique. In 2011, for example, 40 men armed with semi-automatic weapons and other guns surrounded a restaurant in Arlington, Texas, in which a mothers’ group had gathered to discuss gun regulations. “Second Amendment people” have spit upon women arguing for gun regulation and threatened them with rape. In one case, a member of these groups waited in the dark at the home of an advocate and then sought to intimidate her as she approached in her wheelchair.
The growing resort to violence and intimidation in our country is a product of an environment in which leading politicians not only look the other way as their constituents and affiliated groups use such tactics to press a political point, but in which the leaders themselves are complicit.
These are dangerous games being played by a major political party in its own quest for power. Whether or not Donald Trump is the most recent and most bombastic evidence of what has become of the GOP, it is the leadership and the elected officials of the party who are condoning and perpetuating an environment in which insinuations of violence will increasingly lead to acts of violence. The more that the right uses and suggests violence as a method of capturing, consolidating, and holding power, the more they become like the very terrorists they claim to be against.

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