Legal battles over anti-abortion laws costs ND taxpayers nearly $330,000

By Rob Port | Watchdog.org North Dakota Bureau

ABORTION FIGHT: In 2013, the North Dakota Legislature passed four anti-abortion laws. Legal battles over two of them have cost taxpayers nearly $330,000 so far.

BISMARCK, N.D. — When the North Dakota’s Legislature passed four anti-abortion bills during the 2013 session, it expected a fight in court. That’s why it appropriated $400,000 to Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem’s office to cover the cost of litigation.

Now that two of the laws have had their days in federal court, and with one of them likely to enter the appeals process, nearly all of that appropriation has been used up.

Calling it “an invalid and unconstitutional law,” federal court Judge Daniel Hovland struck down HB 1456 last week. If allowed to become law it would disallow abortions after a heartbeat of an unborn child is detected in the womb.

An appeal is planned. Special Assistant Attorney General Daniel Gaustad, who is handling the litigation for the state, said the ruling would be appealed “if need be to the Supreme Court.”

The legal wrangling over HB 1456 has cost taxpayers $154,749 — through the date of Hovland’s April 17 ruling, according to data obtained from Stenehjem’s office.

That figure includes $124,737 in payments to the Grand Forks-based Pearson Christenson & Clapp law firm for legal services, and just more than $30,000 in payments to expert witnesses.

The state also fought a successful legal battle over SB 2305, which would require doctors at abortion clinics in the state to have admitting privileges at a local hospital. That law was challenged by the Fargo-based Red River Women’s Clinic and the Center for Reproductive Rights, a national group based in New York City; the suit was settled when the clinic was able to get admitting privileges at the Sanford hospital in Fargo.

According to the Attorney General’s office, that litigation cost the state $79,848.

In addition to these outside expenses, the attorney general’s office estimates another 1,046 hours have been spent on the cases by state staff at a cost of $93,238.66. “If we provide legal services to another state agency, the attorney work time is billed out,” Liz Brocker, spokeswoman for the attorney general’s office, said via email. “The $93K is the calculation of the monetary value of the work time spent by the attorneys & paralegals within this office.”

The total cost to taxpayers, including the time spent by state employees on the cases, comes to $326,835.66.

North Dakota lawmakers passed two other anti-abortion laws last year that have not been challenged in court.

  • HB 1305 bans the use of abortion for gender selection or genetic abnormalities
  • HCR 4009 is an amendment to the state constitution recognizing life as existing at every stage of human development; it will be decided on the November 2014 ballot

You can reach Rob Port at rport@watchdog.org

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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