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Montana Blocked From Defending Parental Involvement Laws

Jessica Mason Pieklo

A Montana judge ruled that attorneys for the State of Montana cannot defend two recent parental involvement laws because courts in the state have previously ruled similar restrictions unconstitutional.

On Friday, a court ruled that attorneys for the State of Montana cannot defend two recent parental involvement laws because courts in the state have previously ruled similar restrictions unconstitutional.

The two laws at issue represent Montana’s latest attempts to curb abortion access for juveniles in the state. The first is the state’s 2012 parental notification ballot measure, which has been in effect since January 1, 2013. The second law is the Montana Parental Consent for Abortion Act of 2013, which, among other things, sought to repeal the parental notification ballot measure and replace it with a stricter law that would have required all Montana minors to obtain notarized parental consent before having an abortion.

In May 2013, the Planned Parenthood of Montana and a Montana physician, represented by attorneys from the Billings firm Crist, Krogh & Nord, LLC and the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, sued to challenge both the 2012 parental notice ballot measure and the 2013 parental consent bill, arguing both laws violate the privacy and equal protection rights in the Montana Constitution. In June 2013, attorneys for the the state agreed to allow a court to preliminarily block the parental consent bill, preventing it from taking effect, while the legal challenge to the measures proceeded. Attorneys for the state also raised a preliminary question for the court to answer: Did an earlier case that struck as unconstitutional a Montana parental notification law predating both the 2012 ballot measure and the 2013 consent act bar the state from moving forward in defense of these latest restrictions?

The answer to that question, the court ruled Friday, is yes. In its ruling, the court explained that a “determination has already been made that the compelling state interests advanced by the State in support of these enactments are not sufficient to support the violation of constitutional rights of a pregnant minor seeking an abortion.” Because these two new laws are so similar to one already ruled unconstitutional, and because this latest legal challenge in effect presents for the court those same legal issues, the court reasoned, the question of whether parental notification or consent requirements are allowed under the Montana Constitution should be considered settled law.

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“This ruling is not only a victory for Planned Parenthood’s patients, but for all Montana families,” said Martha Stahl, president and CEO of the Planned Parenthood of Montana, in a statement following the ruling. “Now the question is whether Attorney General will accept this ruling that protects the rights and health of the young women of Montana, or force the state to spend more resources on litigating laws held unconstitutional more than a decade ago.”

Attorneys for Planned Parenthood may now ask the court to permanently block the laws while the state attorney general considers whether to appeal.

The decision to prevent the state from moving forward with its defense of the two parental involvement statutes came on the heels of the Montana Judicial Standards Commission filing a formal complaint with the state supreme court against District Judge G. Todd Baugh related to comments and oversight of a high-profile child rape case. Baugh came under national scrutiny after saying that a 14-year-old rape victim was “older than her chronological age” to explain sentencing her rapist to just one month in prison. Baugh has since apologized for his handling of the case and for his comments and has said he plans to retire at the end of the year.

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