DES MOINES — A faith-based law firm from Chicago will represent the state at no cost in defending a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the new “fetal heartbeat” abortion law, the Iowa Executive Council authorized Monday on a 4-0 vote.
The council gave approval for Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller’s office to enter into a contract with attorneys from the Thomas More Society, which will represent Gov. Kim Reynolds and the Iowa Board of Medicine as defendants in a lawsuit brought earlier this month by Planned Parenthood of the Heartland, Dr. Jill Meadows and the Iowa City-based Emma Goldman Clinic. The Iowa chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union is serving as co-counsel with the Planned Parenthood attorney.
Polk County District Judge Michael D. Huppert judge has scheduled a June 1 court date in Des Moines to hear arguments from the three petitioners seeking a temporary injunction that would prohibit provisions of Senate File 359 — signed May 4 by the Republican governor — from taking effect July 1.
The plaintiffs are challenging provisions of the new law that would ban most abortions with a few exceptions once a fetal heartbeat is detected — usually about six weeks into a pregnancy — arguing the statute violates women’s due-process rights to liberty, safety, happiness and to equal protection under Iowa’s constitution.
The law would require doctors to conduct an abdominal ultrasound to test for a fetal heartbeat. If a heartbeat is detected, a physician could not perform an abortion except in cases of rape, incest and fetal abnormality. The legislation does not specify criminal or civil penalties for those breaking the law, but critics argue it was poorly written with vague language creating uncertainty for doctors making medical decisions for their patients.
Opponents say the law is among the most restrictive in the country, and they are seeking to stop implementation before it takes effect and hope eventually to strike it down completely.
Proponents say they expect the outcome in state court likely will be appealed by the losing side to the U.S. Supreme Court, where they hope the legislation would prompt the justices to reverse the 1973 landmark Roe v. Wade ruling that legalized abortion.
The Executive Council members sought outside counsel after Miller, a Democrat, previously said his office would disqualify itself and not represent the state in defense of SF 359 if a legal challenge was filed.
Eric Tabor of the Iowa Attorney General’s Office told reporters Monday that Miller disqualified himself after he “determined that he could not zealously defend the state because of the impact that (the new law) would have on the rights of women and protection if the statute was upheld.”
At Monday’s council meeting, Tabor said Miller had been in contact with attorneys with the Thomas More Society to discuss their desire to present the state’s position in consultation with the governor and legislators. He said “there was consensus that they would do a good job and we also talked to them about doing it pro bono.”
Tabor noted that at least two law firms offered to represent the governor and medical board at no cost, but he said the determination was made that Thomas More “was best able to do this — because of their experience, the qualifications of their lawyers and their desire to do it, their zealous desire to defend that statute.”
Martin Cannon, Thomas More Society special counsel, issued a statement last week saying “Attorney General Tom Miller’s decision to disqualify himself is based on his determination that he could not defend the Iowa fetal heartbeat law because of his personal beliefs. Since the Thomas More Society’s mission is to protect women and babies from the devastating consequences of abortion, when there is a choice between life and death, the Thomas More Society is honored to be called upon to defend life.”
Those council members voting to hire outside counsel were Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate and State Auditor Mary Mosiman — who both participated by telephone hookup — along with State Treasurer Michael Fitzgerald and Iowa Agriculture Secretary Michael Naig.
Reynolds, who was out of state attending a Republican Governors Association meeting in New York, did not participate in the meeting. Reynolds’ spokeswoman Brenna Smith said the governor’s expenses were paid for by the association.
During a stop in Davenport last week, Reynolds told reporters that “we feel very confident moving forward with it, and so it’s important that, first of all, this is about life, it’s about protecting life and that’s first and foremost the priority, and we have somebody that has agreed to represent us and do it at no cost to the taxpayers.”
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