Nevada court hears ‘personhood’ measure appeal
Associated Press Writer
LAS VEGAS (AP) – Proponents of a ballot initiative to reshape Nevada abortion law asked the state Supreme Court on Tuesday to focus on the eight words that they said clearly define their goal.
“The term ‘person’ applies to every human being,” Personhood Nevada leader Olaf Vancura said afterward, using the same eight words outside the state high court that are the focus of his group’s appeal. He wants to be allowed to collect signatures to qualify the initiative for the November ballot.
In court, an American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada lawyer told the seven justices that voters wouldn’t know that amending the Nevada Constitution to define “personhood” as beginning at conception would let advocates advance efforts to ban abortions, restrict common forms of birth control and affect end-of-life questions.
“These are hot-button, critical issues,” ACLU attorney Lee Rowland said, urging the state’s only appellate court to uphold a lower court ruling in January that the initiative is vague and violates state law limiting ballot questions to one subject.
“There needs to be some information in there that lets the voters know what’s going on,” Rowland said.
Justices appeared skeptical of overruling the lower court based on Personhood Nevada lawyer Michael Peters’ argument that the lower court judge erred in examining anything more than the legality of the wording.
Justice James Hardesty asked Peters if there was a difference between considering the constitutionality of the proposed initiative and determining whether it “impacts other provisions in our laws beyond the stated purpose of the initiative.”
“You’re limited in looking at, in this case, the eight operative words in determining the single subject,” Peters responded. “It’s an ‘on-its-face’ analysis.”
“Does this fully inform the voters, ultimately, as to what they’re voting on, what they’re amending in the Constitution?” Justice Michael Douglas asked. “Or is it so open-ended that they’re not sure what the meaning is?”
Peters told Douglas, the first black justice on the Nevada Supreme Court, that the initiative aimed to extend civil rights to a person at conception.
“In essence you’re asking us to define when life begins,” Douglas said. “Does it do that? Is it clear in all cases?”
“It does define human beings and when life begins,” Peters responded.
More than 50 people ranging from right-to-life advocates to Planned Parenthood representatives filled the courtroom gallery for the oral arguments in Las Vegas.
A day earlier, another branch of the national organization Personhood USA gained enough signatures to put an anti-abortion proposal on the Mississippi ballot in 2011.
A similar proposal goes before Colorado voters this fall, and Personhood USA leader Keith Mason said signatures were being gathered for constitutional amendments in Missouri, California, Florida and Montana. Mason tallied about 40 states in which the organization was working toward changing laws.
Rowland urged the Nevada high court to consider the effects of eight words “that are only fleshed out and that only have meaning once you read the description of effects.”
“So your argument is that the sentence encompasses more than a single subject?” asked Hardesty, who posed most of the questions during the 30-minute hearing.
“Absolutely,” Rowland replied. “Allowing it to go through simply because of its brevity, I think, poses a very real danger to the citizens of Nevada, which is that the initiative process starts to be used for vague, semantic and theoretical ideas.”
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