Florida seeks a stay of judge’s ruling requiring a revision to the abortion rights amendment’s financial statement

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"Bans Off Our Bodies Tampa Bay" sign
St. Petersburg rally to commemorate the anniversary of Roe v. Wade. By Seán Kinane/WMNF News (22 Jan 2024).

By Jim Saunders ©2024 The News Service of Florida

TALLAHASSEE — The state late Tuesday asked an appeals court to put on hold a circuit judge’s decision that required changes to a “financial impact statement” that will appear on the November ballot with a proposed constitutional amendment about abortion rights.

Solicitor General Henry Whitaker and other state lawyers filed a motion urging the 1st District Court of Appeal to issue a stay while an appeal of Circuit Judge John Cooper’s ruling plays out. The motion came hours after Cooper rejected a stay in the case.

The stay issue is part of a fast-moving legal battle about the financial impact statement that voters will see when they cast ballots on the proposed amendment, which seeks to enshrine abortion rights in the Florida Constitution.

Cooper on Monday issued a ruling that said outdated information in the financial impact statement “renders it inaccurate, ambiguous, misleading, unclear and confusing.” He ordered that the statement be redrafted within 15 days.

The state quickly appealed Cooper’s decision. Under court rules, that placed an automatic stay on the decision. But Cooper held a hearing Tuesday afternoon and vacated the stay.

In their motion late Tuesday at the appeals court, the state’s lawyers argued that Cooper did not have legal jurisdiction to order a redrafted financial impact statement. Such statements are drawn up by a panel known as the Financial Impact Estimating Conference.

“The circuit court has unlawfully injected itself into the citizen initiative process by ordering the Financial Impact Estimating Conference, within 15 days, to redraft the financial impact statement that will accompany the proposed amendment respecting abortion that the people will vote on in this fall’s election,” the motion said. “Rather than allow the appellate process to proceed in the ordinary course — and even though nearly 11 weeks remain before the ballot must be finalized — the circuit court vacated the automatic stay, which gives the conference less than 15 days to comply with the court’s order to redraft the statement.”

In another twist, the Financial Impact Estimating Conference on Monday scheduled meetings July 1 and July 8 to “consider potential revisions to the financial impact statement to be placed on the ballot” for the abortion measure, according to a notice published online.

The state’s motion at the appeals court indicated the panel plans to revisit the financial impact statement regardless of whether Cooper’s decision is overturned.

“The FIEC intends that revision process to move forward even if the circuit court’s order is reversed on jurisdictional grounds,” the motion said.

Financial impact statements appear with ballot initiatives to provide estimated effects of the measures on government revenues and the state budget. The panel issued the financial impact statement for the abortion proposal in November.

But that came before two major Florida Supreme Court rulings April 1 on abortion issues. One of the rulings cleared the way for the proposed constitutional amendment to go on the ballot as Amendment 4.

The other ruling rejected a challenge to a 15-week abortion limit that lawmakers passed in 2022. That ruling also allowed a six-week abortion limit to take effect. Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Legislature approved the six-week limit in 2023.

The Floridians Protecting Freedom political committee, which is leading efforts to pass the constitutional amendment, filed a lawsuit in April arguing that the financial impact statement should be revised in light of the Supreme Court rulings.

The statement issued in November included caveats about litigation surrounding state abortion laws and concluded, “Because there are several possible outcomes related to this litigation that differ widely in their effects, the impact of the proposed amendment on state and local government revenues and costs, if any, cannot be determined.”

In his ruling Monday, Cooper agreed with Floridians Protecting Freedom and said the statement violates the Florida Constitution and state law “because it presents largely outdated information about the legality of abortion under statutes and litigation unrelated to Amendment 4.”

Floridians Protecting Freedom requested that Cooper vacate the automatic stay, a request he granted during Tuesday’s hearing.

In the motion filed at the Tallahassee-based appeals court, the state’s lawyers contended that only the Florida Supreme Court could legally review the financial impact statement. What’s more, it said the Supreme Court in 2019 decided against issuing what are known as “advisory” opinions about financial impact statements.

The proposed constitutional amendment says, in part, that no “law shall prohibit, penalize, delay, or restrict abortion before viability or when necessary to protect the patient’s health, as determined by the patient’s healthcare provider.” It has drawn opposition from DeSantis and other state Republican leaders.

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