Mont. Can No Longer Defend Parental Involvement Laws, Judge Rules

February 6, 2014 — A Montana judge ruled Friday that the state must drop its defense of two laws (LR 120, HB 391) that require parental involvement in minors' abortion decisions because the requirements were already struck down 15 years ago, the Missoulian reports (Johnson, Missoulian, 2/5).

One law, which was approved through a ballot measure in 2012, mandates that minors younger than age 16 notify their parents before obtaining an abortion. The law includes exceptions for medical emergencies and for minors who petition a youth court for a waiver.

The other law requires minors under age 18 to obtain notarized parental consent before abortions. With the expectation that the law would be struck down in court, Gov. Steve Bullock (D) in April 2013 allowed the legislation to become law without his signature. The strategic move also simultaneously killed a companion antiabortion-rights referendum (HB 521) that would have otherwise gone before voters this year.

In a lawsuit filed last May, Planned Parenthood of Montana noted that a Montana court in 1999 struck down a parental notification law for violating a minor's right to abortion. PPMT argued that the current measures restrict minors' rights in a similar way (Women's Health Policy Report, 5/31/13).

Latest Ruling

District Judge Jeffrey Sherlock on Friday agreed that the issue was decided in former Judge Dorothy McCarter's 1999 ruling that requiring minors to notify their parents before an abortion infringed on their constitutional rights to equal protection and privacy.

Sherlock also noted that the Montana Supreme Court has ruled against re-examining issues that already have been decided if each side has had a full and fair chance to present its case (Volz, AP/Washington Times, 2/4).

In addition, Sherlock noted that the state did not appeal the 1999 decision. He said that while the state's concerns were "certainly legitimate ... there was nothing preventing the state from appealing" the earlier decision.

Next Steps

A PPMT spokesperson said the group plans to ask Sherlock to permanently enjoin the laws to stop them from being enforced.

PPMT CEO Martha Stahl said, "These laws are not only bad health policy, but also clear violations of young Montanans' constitutional rights." Still, she said it was unclear whether Montana Attorney General Tim Fox (R) would "accept the ruling that protects the right and health of the young women of Montana, or force the state to spend more resources in litigating laws held unconstitutional more than a decade ago."

Fox's spokesperson John Barnes said the office would appeal the ruling (Missoulian, 2/5).