Judge blocks abortion clinic license bill

Helena, MT – Lewis and Clark County District Court Judge Christopher Abbott has issued a temporary restraining order that temporarily blocks a law scheduled to take effect on October 1st. This law would have mandated that abortion clinics in Montana obtain licenses to operate. The restraining order stems from the fact that the state has yet to establish the rules and procedures for clinics to become licensed, rendering it impossible for them to comply with the law at this time.

The plaintiffs in the case, which include All Families Healthcare, Blue Mountain Clinic, and Helen Weems, will need to present their case to Judge Abbott during an October 30th hearing, where they will seek a preliminary injunction against the law that was created during the previous legislative session through House Bill 937.

The lawsuit targets the state of Montana, the Department of Public Health and Human Services (DPHHS), and its director, Charlie Brereton, as the named defendants. Judge Abbott’s restraining order specifically pertains to Section 2(1) of the bill, which clearly stipulates that abortion clinics must be licensed by the department to operate.

Judge Abbott’s interpretation of the law is that it unequivocally prohibits abortion clinics from operating without a license. However, his order underscores that, as of the effective date of the law on October 1st, there is no mechanism in place for clinics to obtain these licenses, as the DPHHS has neither formulated nor publicly proposed any rules to implement House Bill 937.

In his decision, Judge Abbott references past legal precedents, such as the Armstrong v. State and Weems v. State cases, which affirm the right to abortion as protected under the right to privacy. He emphasizes that laws that significantly hinder abortion access are presumptively unconstitutional and can only be enforced if they pass strict scrutiny, the highest standard of judicial review.

Judge Abbott’s order also asserts that while there may be a compelling state interest in licensing abortion clinics, there is no compelling interest in mandating licensure without providing a path for clinics to obtain licenses, as doing so would create an “implied impossibility defense,” which the court cannot insert into the legislation.

Spokespeople for the plaintiffs and abortion rights advocates have welcomed the temporary restraining order, emphasizing the importance of protecting patients’ access to abortion services. They argue that the recent wave of restrictive abortion laws passed by various states often focuses more on control than safety, posing a significant challenge to women’s healthcare.

In response to the legal challenge, the state had argued that the law was not yet ripe for enforcement since the rules and regulations for implementation were not in place. However, Judge Abbott concluded that the lack of rules did not alleviate the plaintiffs’ concerns about potential enforcement and that county attorneys could still attempt to enforce the law even without specific rules.

Judge Abbott’s ruling underscores the urgency of the matter, given the time-sensitive nature of abortion services, particularly as pregnancies progress. He states that a legal chill on abortion services due to uncertainty over the law would result in irreparable harm to both clinics and their patients. Despite the temporary restraining order, it does not prevent the DPHHS from initiating the rulemaking process or limit the legislature’s policy objectives since there are currently no rules in place for enforcement.

by: Big Sky Headlines Staff