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Abortion Law to Remain in Effect Amid Court Battle

Abortion rights protestors at a rally in Fort Walton Beach last month.
Hunter Morrison
WUWF Public Media
Abortion rights protestors at a rally in Fort Walton Beach last month.

Anew Florida law preventing abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy will remain in effect while a legal battle plays out.

Leon County Circuit Judge John Cooper last week issued a temporary injunction to block the law, finding that it violated the Florida Constitution. But the state appealed, which, under court rules, triggered an automatic stay of the injunction.

Cooper on Tuesday denied a request from abortion clinics and a physician to vacate the stay. That effectively means the injunction remains on hold and that the 15-week restriction will remain in effect at least until the 1st District Court of Appeal — or possibly the Florida Supreme Court — rules on the state’s appeal.

Cooper pointed to a “very high burden” that the 1st District Court of Appeal has set for vacating stays while appeals are pending. He wrote that “courts are obliged to follow binding precedent even if they might wish to decide the case differently” and pointed to the direction from the appeals court that automatic stays may only be vacated “under the most compelling circumstances.”

In addition, Cooper’s order listed a series of cases in recent years, including a high-profile decision in May by a circuit judge to vacate an automatic stay in a congressional redistricting lawsuit. The Tallahassee-based appeals court quickly overturned that decision, putting the stay back into effect.

“The above cases regarding the automatic stay are included in this order to demonstrate the basis for this court’s conclusion that the First District has established a high barrier, based on the ‘most compelling circumstances’ doctrine, to a trial court issuing an order vacating an automatic stay,” he wrote.

The abortion clinics and physician filed the lawsuit on June 1, arguing that the 15-week limit violated a privacy clause in the Florida Constitution that has long played a key role in bolstering abortion rights in the state. Cooper agreed with that argument in issuing the temporary injunction on July 5.

After the state quickly appealed, triggering the automatic stay, the plaintiffs filed an emergency motion to vacate the stay.

“Every day that HB 5 (the law) remains in effect, Florida patients in desperate need of post-15-week abortion services are being turned away and forced to attempt to seek abortions out of state, if they are able to do so; to attempt abortions outside the medical system, or to continue pregnancies against their will,” the emergency motion said.

But Attorney General Ashley Moody’s office objected to vacating the stay, in part saying in a court filing that the plaintiffs had not “shown a likelihood of success on the merits” of their arguments in the case. Also, the filing cited the Florida Supreme Court’s “preference for preserving legislative enactments pending appeal even when a trial court has found them invalid.”

The plaintiffs could ask the appeals court to vacate the stay. It is not clear how long it could take for the appeals court to rule on the temporary injunction — or whether it will.

The state has asked that the case be fast-tracked to the Florida Supreme Court, bypassing a decision by the appeals court. The plaintiffs have objected to such a move.

Jim Saunders - News Service of Florida