Blair Miller

(Daily Montanan) As Republicans on the Law and Justice Interim Committee were preparing Thursday to vote whether or not to support CI-128, the abortion access constitutional amendment initiative, Sen. Keith Regier asked the committee attorney when and where the vote would be attached to the initiative petition.

“It won’t be,” committee attorney Julianne Burkhardt responded.

Republicans held the hearing Thursday morning to give an up-or-down vote for the measure despite the Montana Supreme Court having ruled that because of the way the law is written and because Republican Attorney General did not find the measure to be legally sufficient — the Supreme Court did — it was not subject to review by a legislative committee.

In the end, the committee voted 6-0 not to support it. But the two Democrats on the committee did not attend the hearing, nor did the groups that make up Montanans Securing Reproductive Rights or their supporters, which they said would be the case at their kick-off event Tuesday afternoon, calling it “theater.”

House Minority Leader Kim Abbott, D-Helena, and Senate Minority Leader Pat Flowers, D-Belgrade, called the hearing a “sham.”

“Reproductive freedom, including the right to access abortion care, is broadly popular among Montanans, and the initiative would explicitly protect those rights in the Montana Constitution,” the two said in a joint statement. “We will not participate in Republicans’ attempts to keep this initiative away from the voters.”

The ballot initiative has turned into a political cudgel in recent months. Knudsen, the Gianforte administration, and most Republican legislators have supported laws restricting abortion access in Montana and are staunchly opposed to the proposal, which would enshrine broad abortion protections in the state constitution beyond the standing ones upheld in the 1999 Armstrong v. Montana decision.

Knudsen first found the measure to be legally insufficient in January, but the Supreme Court overturned that ruling after Montanans Securing Reproductive Rights challenged it. Then, Knudsen wrote a ballot statement inserting his own language that differed greatly from the statement submitted by the group. The Supreme Court said the language Knudsen used was also not sufficient and wrote a statement for the petition it said was fair and would be used by the petitioners.

The court’s ruling that the initiative, after having the ballot statement finalized, did not need to go to a legislative committee further angered Senate President Jason Ellsworth, R-Hamilton, who was already in the process of launching a select committee to look into what he says are judicial oversteps because multiple laws passed over the past two sessions have been struck down as unconstitutional. Ellsworth is running in the primary for the Clerk of the Supreme Court seat this year.

Ellsworth subpoenaed the initiative materials from Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen and said he would have the Law and Justice Committee review the measure regardless of the court’s ruling.

At Thursday’s remote hearing, which supporters of the measure said earlier this week they would boycott, only one person spoke in favor of the initiative. More than two-dozen opponents spoke against the measure.

Many cited their religion as reasons for opposing abortion generally, but others also made arguments similar to the ones the attorney general made as he pushed back against the proposal in the earlier phase of the process by saying certain terms, including “fetal viability,” lacked explicit definitions.

Regier, the senator from Kalispell, remarked that the initiative’s using the phrase “pregnant patient” instead of “pregnant woman” “gives a transgender feel to this initiative.”

Sen. Chris Friedel, R-Billings, joked about supporting a woman’s right to choose.

“They had several choices to make before this (pregnancy) happened,” he said.

Ellsworth took the opportunity to continue to dig at the court and at Democrats, saying the lack of supporters of the initiative at the hearing shows the true feelings of Montanans on the issue of abortion and that Democrats, by not showing up to the hearing, were not representing their constituents.

“It’s no wonder the Montana Supreme Court took extreme lengths to try to avoid having a public hearing on this controversial initiative,” he said in a statement. “The Montana public came out strongly against the initiative when given the opportunity to make their voices heard.”

In 2022, 53% of Montana voters rejected LR-131, a “born alive” initiative that was run by opponents of abortion.

In a statement Thursday afternoon, Martha Fuller, speaking on behalf of Montanans Securing Reproductive Rights, said the hearing involved “misleading and deceiving” voters.

“This ridiculous hearing demonstrates why moving forward with the amendment to secure the reproductive rights that Montanans currently have in the State Constitution is so critical and urgent,” Fuller said. “Montanans Securing Reproductive Rights will continue to work alongside our partners and volunteers around the state to qualify this essential initiative.”

Montanans Securing Reproductive Rights started gathering signatures for the initiative last week and launched their campaign officially on Tuesday. They will have until June 21 to gather more than 60,000 valid signatures, including from 10% of the voters in 40 different state House districts, in order for the initiative to appear on November’s ballot.