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Latest Ohio Abortion Case Revolves Around Legal Technicalities

Ohio Supreme Court Gavel statue
Creative Commons

The Ohio Supreme Court on Tuesday heard yet another case involving one of the state’s abortion providers. It’s the second abortion-related case to go before the court this month, with the latest revolving around who has legal standing to sue and what constitutes a "single-subject" bill.

This case began years ago when state lawmakers attached several restrictions on abortion to the 2013-14 state budget. One part involves transfer agreements, which are written plans with hospitals outlining details of care for patients who come there from ambulatory surgery centers such as abortion clinics.

Another part being questioned involves mandatory ultrasounds to establish fetal heartbeats, something that requires clinic patients to make multiple visits.

Cleveland abortion provider Preterm wants to take the state to court over these disputed provisions but first, the Ohio Supreme Court has to say the clinic has standing.

If you ask Mike Gonidakis, president of the anti-abortion group Ohio Right to Life, he’ll say Preterm doesn’t have legal standing.

“They freely admitted that they already do ultrasounds. They freely admitted that they already had to have transfer agreements," Gonidakis said. So the court simply asked what harm can you prove or demonstrate and why are you here today? And they just plainly said ‘We just don’t like the law.’”

Well, that’s what the legislature’s for. That’s where you go to redress these policy issues,” Gonidakis said.

Not so, says Jessie Hill, an attorney representing the Preterm clinic. She says Preterm does have standing because some of the provisions passed have hurt the clinic.

She argued the policy issues are not constitutional.

“You know this case is about the fact that the Ohio Legislature tucked these controversial provisions into a must-pass budget bill at the last moment, did not follow a fair and constitutional legislative process, and violated the Ohio Constitution when it did that so, that is the essence of our argument,” Hill said.

The Ohio Constitution limits a bill to a single subject, to avoid unrelated policies being attached. But Gonidakis takes issue with the argument that the provisions were passed unfairly or that the single-subject rule was violated.

“The budget is 3,000 pages full of non-budgetary related items. That’s happened under Republican governors, Democrat governors, Democrat legislatures and Republican legislatures,” he says. “That’s why we take the budget as a policy document as well as a financial fiscal document. If we are going to go down this slippery slope, do we want seven men and women on the Ohio Supreme Court line-iteming and taking out what is in our budget? No, we don’t. That’s what the legislature is for.”

Hill says there are other pieces of legislation that have violated the single-subject rule and she says it’s time for the state’s highest court to rein in that practice.

“That is one of the big concerns here is, if the Ohio Supreme Court continues to sanction this kind of behavior by the General Assembly, by narrowing who has standing to raise these claims, by kicking plaintiffs who are injured by them out of court and saying ‘We can’t make these arguments,’ then it’s just kind of creating a roadmap for legislatures in the future – the Ohio Legislature in the future – to continue to engage in this kind of conduct,” Hill said.

Gonidakis says he thinks the Ohio Supreme Court will rule Preterm doesn’t have standing to sue the state, and the case will end there.

But he says the legislature, not the court, will have the final say in the end where these abortion laws are concerned.

“If the court upholds what the legislature did, I think we will continue to move forward and do what we do but if they strike it down, it will be on the Governor’s desk by the end of the year," Gonidakis said.

“If that’s what the legislature wants to do if the Ohio General Assembly wants to pass these bills as stand-alone bills, it is entitled to do that,” Hill said. “That is not our argument. We are focused on the method by which the Ohio Legislature snuck these provisions into the Ohio budget bill, without public scrutiny or debate.”

This is the second time in one month that the Ohio Supreme Court has heard arguments involving state laws and abortion clinics.

Earlier this month, a Toledo clinic fought against a state order to close its doors because of the new transfer agreement law that was in that 2013 budget. If the court rules against the Toledo clinic, in that case, the city will no longer have a local abortion provider. 

Jo Ingles is a professional journalist who covers politics and Ohio government for the Ohio Public Radio and Television for the Ohio Public Radio and Television Statehouse News Bureau. She reports on issues of importance to Ohioans including education, legislation, politics, and life and death issues such as capital punishment.