Friday, January 22, 2016
Kansas Appellate Court Affirms Finding That Kansas's "Dismemberment Abortion Act" is Unconstitutional under State Constitution
The Kansas Court of Appeals, the intermediate appellate court, has found that the Kansas Constitution includes a due process right applicable to abortion and that the Kansas Unborn Child Protection from Dismemberment Abortion Act (SB95) violates that right in its opinion by Judge Steve Leben in Hodes & Nauser v. Schmidt.
Before the discussion of the constitutionality of the Act, there were some preliminary - - - and unusual - - - issues, including some noteworthy matters of procedure. Unusually, the Court of Appeals heard the case en banc rather in a panel of three. And presumably also unusual, the judges were "equally divided, seven voting to affirm the district court and seven voting to reverse." Thus, the trial court's ruling granting a preliminary injunction against the Act was affirmed.
Additionally, there were some state constitutional law issues. Importantly, the plaintiffs' argument that the Act is unconstitutional rests solely on the state constitution. As the Leben opinion stated, this was a case of first impression and a "plaintiff has the procedural right to choose the legal theories he or she will pursue; we cannot force the plaintiffs here to choose another legal avenue.") But the Kansas State Constitution does not include a due process clause - - - or even the words "due process" - - - unlike the United States Constitution's Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments, in which the right to an abortion has been anchored. Instead, plaintiffs argued, and the court found, that §1 and §2 of the Kansas Constitution Bill of Rights include a due process right despite their explicit language:
§ 1. Equal rights. All men are possessed of equal and inalienable natural rights, among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
§ 2. Political power; privileges. All political power is inherent in the people, and all free governments are founded on their authority, and are instituted for their equal protection and benefit. No special privileges or immunities shall ever be granted by the legislature, which may not be altered, revoked or repealed by the same body; and this power shall be exercised by no other tribunal or agency.
Judge Leben's finding was based in large part on previous decisions of the Kansas Supreme Court. Where the dissent differed was not on the matter of due process as a general matter but on the specific inclusion of "abortion." Indeed, as Judge Leben's opinion admitted "What the Kansas Supreme Court has not yet done is apply substantive-due-process principles in a case involving personal or fundamental rights, like the right to contraception, the right to marry, or the right to abortion." But as Judge Leben's opinion noted, "the Kansas Supreme Court has explicitly recognized a substantive-due- process right under the Kansas Constitution and has applied a substantive-due-process legal standard equivalent to the one applicable under the Fourteenth Amendment at the time of these Kansas decisions." This past practice was an embrace of the present, and Judge Leben's opinion interestingly quotes the Court's recent opinion by Justice Kennedy Obergefell as well as opinions from the Kansas Supreme Court. Judge Leben nicely sums up the position:
The rights of Kansas women in 2016 are not limited to those specifically intended by the men who drafted our state's constitution in 1859.
Having decided that the Kansas constitutional text merits a co-extensive interpretation with the federal constitution, Judge Leben's opinion for the Kansas Court of Appeal does not rest on "adequate and independent state grounds" under Michigan v. Long. Judge Gordon Atcheson's extensive and scholarly concurring opinion makes the case that §1 of the Kansas Bill of Rights provides "entirely separate constitutional protection without direct federal counterpart" for abortion and that such protection is greater under the Kansas state constitution than under the Fourteenth Amendment.
Under the co-extensive interpretation, Judge Leben's opinion thus confronted the constitutionality of the Kansas Act under the substantive due process "undue burden" standard. This entailed an application of the disparate Carhart cases: Stenberg v. Carhart (2000) and Gonzales v. Carhart (2007). In Stenberg, the Court concluded Nebraska's so-called "partial-birth abortion" statute was unconstitutional; in Gonzales, the Court concluded that the federal so-called "partial-birth abortion" statute was constitutional.
The Judge Leben opinion distinguished Gonzales:
But the circumstances here are quite unlike Gonzales. There, the Court considered a ban on an uncommon procedure and noted that the most common and generally safest abortion method remained available. Here, the State has done the opposite, banning the most common, safest procedure and leaving only uncommon and often unstudied options available.
Interestingly, Judge Atcheson's concurring opinion responded to the Justice Kennedy's language in Gonzales and the language of the Kansas Act:
The State's remaining argument rests on the unaesthetic description of a D &E abortion contained in Senate Bill 95 and in Gonzales v. Carhart (2007). But aesthetics really cannot justify legislative limitations on safe medical procedures. The lack of justification is even more pronounced when the procedure is integral to a woman's constitutional right to self-determination and reproductive freedom. The government cannot impose upon an essential right because some exercise of the right may be unaesthetic or even repulsive to some people. That's all the more true when those people needn't see or participate in the protected activity.
The dissenting opinion concludes that there is "nothing in the text or history of §§1 and 2 of the Kansas Constitution Bill of Rights to lead this court to conclude that these provisions were intended to guarantee a right to abortion."
This matter is surely going to the Kansas Supreme Court, as Judge Leben's opinion for the Kansas Court of Appeals acknowledged. Rendered on the 43rd anniversary of the United States Supreme Court's decision in Roe v. Wade and as the Court prepares to consider its first abortion case in 8 years, Whole Woman's Health v. Cole, the Kansas Court of Appeals evenly split decision exemplifies how divided opinion on this issue can be.