Mississippi, where abortion is technically both legal and illegal
Published 5:30 pm Saturday, July 16, 2022
Despite the current abortion ban imposed by state law, a brave doctor could theoretically perform the medical procedure and argue in court that she was acting based on what the Mississippi Supreme Court said was legal.
Of course, a doctor challenging the law might be labeled as foolish instead of brave since the physician would run the risk of losing her medical license and face the specter of being sentenced to prison under conditions of the state law banning abortion. No telling how judges in Mississippi might rule on the issue.
But the fact remains that Mississippi is in this strange place where abortions no longer are being performed because of state law yet there is a Supreme Court decision saying the Mississippi Constitution provides abortion rights. And a ninth grade civics student learns that the constitution supersedes state law.
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Based on that 1998 Supreme Court ruling in Pro-Choice Mississippi v. Kirk Fordice, Jackson Women’s Health Organization — what had been the state’s only abortion clinic — recently filed a lawsuit asking that the state abortion ban law be blocked. Many assumed that the ultimate outcome of the lawsuit would be that a lower court would grant, perhaps reluctantly, the motion to postpone the ban and then the state would appeal to the Mississippi Supreme Court, which would issue a ruling reversing the 1998 decision that said there was a constitutional right to an abortion.
But Chancellor Debbra Halford of Franklin County, appointed by state Supreme Court Justice Michael Randolph to hear the case, took a different path. She refused to block the abortion ban.
Halford pointed out that the U.S. Supreme Court had reversed Roe v. Wade, which provided the federal constitutional right to an abortion. She reasoned that the 1998 state state Supreme Court ruling was made because the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled in Roe v. Wade that abortion was legal based on rights under the U.S. Constitution.
But Halford could not cite where the Mississippi Supreme Court said in the 1998 ruling that abortion was a right under the Mississippi Constitution contingent on Roe v. Wade. The state Supreme Court majority opinion said in 1998 abortion was a right under the Mississippi Constitution, separate and apart from Roe.
Further, Halford, proving she was a soothsayer as well as a legal scholar, said that when the case got back before the state Supreme Court, it would reverse the 1998 ruling. She most likely is correct, and we’ll find out soon because the clinic appealed her ruling to the state Supreme Court.
But what if the abortion rights supporters stopped their lawsuit after the Halford decision? The state would have been left in the aforementioned strange place where there was a law banning abortion even though there was a constitutional right to an abortion as stated in the 1998 Mississippi Supreme Court ruling. Halford’s ruling did not overturn that 1998 Supreme Court ruling.
It could be argued that Jackson Women’s Health Organization is doing the state a favor by appealing the Halford decision, giving the Supreme Court the opportunity to reverse the 1998 decision or proclaim unequivocally the state constitution provides abortion rights.
In 1996, then-U.S. Judge William Barbour of the Southern District of Mississippi prevented some restrictions placed on abortion clinics by the state from taking effect.
Barbour of Yazoo City, a relative of former Gov. Haley Barbour, said at the time he was personally opposed to abortion and the decision he was making pained him, but it was the only decision he could make since Roe v. Wade was the law of the land.
Late last month, of course, the U.S. Supreme Court in a landmark decision reversed Roe v. Wade, meaning abortion rights no longer are guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution. That ruling led to the current abortion ban in Mississippi.
But while Roe was the law, scores of federal judges, even those who opposed abortion like William Barbour, issued rulings protecting abortion rights because, they said, they did not have the authority to overrule the U.S. Supreme Court.
Just like Roe v. Wade was the governing authority for Barbour and all those lower court federal judges, Pro-Choice Mississippi v. Fordice was and is the precedent for all the lower court state judges in Mississippi.
Just as the U.S. Supreme Court can and did overturn Roe v. Wade, the Mississippi Supreme Court can and most likely will overturn Pro-Choice Mississippi v. Fordice.
But William Barbour pointed out in 1996 that is a decision for the Supreme Court, not for the lower courts.
This analysis was produced by Mississippi Today, a nonprofit news organization that covers state government, public policy, politics and culture. Bobby Harrison is Mississippi Today’s senior Capitol reporter.