Florida Supreme Court arguments are set for Feb. 7 on the proposed abortion rights constitutional amendment

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"Keep your laws off our bodies" sign at the “Bans Off Our Bodies” rally along the downtown waterfront of St. Petersburg, Florida. By Seán Kinane/WMNF News (24 June 2022).

By Jim Saunders ©2024 The News Service of Florida

TALLAHASSEE — With the measure’s supporters getting close to meeting a petition-signature requirement, the Florida Supreme Court on Wednesday said it will hear arguments Feb. 7 about a proposed constitutional amendment aimed at ensuring abortion rights in the state.

The arguments will center on whether the Supreme Court should approve the wording of the proposed constitutional amendment and allow it to go on the November ballot.

The political committee Floridians Protecting Freedom, which launched the amendment drive in May, needs to submit 891,523 valid petition signatures before a Feb. 1 deadline to be eligible for the ballot. As of Wednesday morning, the state Division of Elections website showed 863,876 valid signatures had been tallied.

But along with meeting the signature requirement, Floridians Protecting Freedom needs Supreme Court approval of the proposed ballot wording — and faces opposition from Attorney General Ashley Moody.

The Supreme Court is not supposed to consider the merits of proposed constitutional amendments but weighs issues such as whether they would be clear to voters. Justices look at ballot titles and summaries, the parts of proposed amendments that voters see when they go to the polls.

The ballot summary of the abortion measure says, in part: “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.”

Moody and other opponents have raised a series of objections to the proposal’s wording, including contending that the word “viability” can have multiple meanings.

In an October brief, Moody described the measure as an effort to “hoodwink” voters and said the ballot summary is part of an “overall design to lay ticking time bombs that will enable abortion proponents later to argue that the amendment has a much broader meaning than voters would ever have thought.”

But Floridians Protecting Freedom fired back in a November brief, saying the meaning of the word “viability” in the context of abortion has long been understood and that voters “can be trusted to know what it would mean to live in a world limiting government interference with abortion before viability.”

“Lacking colorable legal arguments against the proposed amendment’s fitness for the ballot, the attorney general argues the term ‘viability’ has lost its meaning in the abortion context, notwithstanding the countless sources consistently defining it in line with common understanding,” the brief said.

Floridians Protecting Freedom announced its initiative after the Republican-controlled Legislature and Gov. Ron DeSantis this spring approved a law that could prevent abortions after six weeks of pregnancy. The six-week limit is contingent on the outcome of a legal battle about a 15-week abortion limit that DeSantis and lawmakers passed in 2022. The 15-week case also is pending at the Florida Supreme Court.

The proposed constitutional amendment has come amid the backdrop of ballot fights in other states after the U.S. Supreme Court in 2022 overturned the landmark Roe v. Wade abortion rights decision. The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling left abortion decisions to states.

If the Florida proposal reaches the ballot, it would need the approval of 60 percent of voters to pass.

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