Days after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a Louisiana abortion law, Minnesota Senate Republicans moved to get involved in a legal battle over the state’s own measures on abortion access.
In a party-line vote Thursday evening, the Senate Rules Committee voted to hire outside counsel to defend a slate of state abortion restrictions against an ongoing lawsuit.
Backers of the lawsuit are seeking to strike down a number of long-standing laws, including the state’s 24-hour waiting period, two-parent notification for patients under 18, and a burial or cremation requirement for fetal remains, on the grounds that they violate women’s rights to an abortion under the state Constitution and create undue burden on providers.
Attorney General Keith Ellison, a Democrat, has pledged to defend the statutes in his role as the state’s top legal counsel, regardless of his personal views. His office asked a judge to dismiss the lawsuit last year.
Some abortion foes have argued Ellison’s argument in those filings wasn’t strong enough. And Senate Republicans supporting the outside hire questioned his commitment. GOP Sen. Scott Newman said Ellison’s support for abortion rights “make it very, very difficult for him to be a vigorous advocate in upholding the laws.”
“As a public elected official, both in Congress and as an attorney general, he has taken a position that is diametrically opposed to the defense of this lawsuit,” Newman said. “I am not saying that the attorney general has violated any rules of professional conduct ... but I will say that it brings into question whether or not he has a conflict of interest.”
In a statement, Ellison defended his own involvement and said Senate Republicans shouldn’t intervene: “I take seriously my duty to defend the constitutionality of Minnesota statutes. I have successfully opposed other intervention in this case and will oppose the Senate’s intervention as well.”
The move to intervene in the 2019 challenge, Dr. Jane Doe v. Minnesota, was made over objections from Democrats, who accused colleagues of political maneuvering.
“Lawyers are lawyers. They know their job is to defend the defendant, which in this case is the state of Minnesota,” said DFL Sen. Sandy Pappas.
The Senate Republicans hired Saul Ewing Arnstein & Lehr, a national firm whose notable cases include representing Penn State University in the Jerry Sandusky abuse scandal.
In what appears to be an unusual arrangement, the bill is being picked up by Life Legal Defense Foundation, a nonprofit that fights abortion laws.
“I find this really troubling that some complete outside entity is going to be paying our bills to represent us,” said Senate Minority Leader Susan Kent, DFL-Woodbury.
The move by the Senate came days after a judge rejected a motion to dismiss the case. Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, said that compelled Republicans to respond. “The Senate will always support the legal defense of state law,” he said.