GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Voters will decide in November on a constitutional amendment that would ensure abortion rights in Michigan.
In a 5-2 ruling, the Michigan Supreme Court on Thursday ordered the Board of State Canvassers to certify the Reproductive Freedom For All question for the Nov. 8 ballot. If passed, it would enshrine reproductive rights, including to abortions, in the state constitution.
The Board of State Canvassers last week deadlocked — voting 2-2 along party lines — over approving the ballot question. At the center of the debate were spacing issues on the petition that challengers argued made parts of the text nonsensical and therefore invalidated it.
The Supreme Court ruled, however, that the law says only that the full text of the amendment must be present on the petition and that in this case, it is.
“The ‘full text’ of the amendment is present: regardless of the existence or extent of the spacing, all of the words remain and they remain in the same order…” the order read in part. “In this case, the meaning of the words has not changed by the alleged insufficient spacing between them.”
In a concurring opinion, Chief Justice Bridget McCormack said that the requirements for how the petition should read are about “promot(ing) transparency and comprehension.”
“None is designed to be an obstacle without a purpose,” she wrote.
“Including the full text of the proposal serves that goal, too: any signer curious after reading the summary can read the ‘full text’ to be very confident about what exactly they are signing,” she continued.
She also pointed out that the people objecting to the certification “have not produced a single signer who claims to have been confused” by the spacing issue.
“(The two Board of Canvassers members who voted against certification) would disenfranchise millions of Michiganders not because they believe the many thousands of Michiganders who signed the proposal were confused by it, but because they think they have identified a technicality that allows them to do so, a game of gotcha gone very bad,” McCormack wrote. “What a sad marker of the times.”
Justices David Viviano and Brian Zahra dissented, arguing the petition with its spacing errors does not represent the ‘full text’ as required by law.
Zahra acknowledged the “vital importance” of the issue, but argued that “intense interest in the question presented does not change the law dictating the rules…”
“As a wordsmith and a member of Michigan’s court of last resort, a court that routinely scrutinizes in great detail the words used in statutes and constitutional provisions, I find it an unremarkable proposition that spaces between words matter,” he wrote.
He added that he would have liked to hear oral arguments but that the time pressure made that impractical. He called on the state Legislature to change the law to make sure the Board of State Canvassers votes on certification at least six weeks before ballots must be finalized, which would allow for more time for the courts to deliberate a challenge.
Zahra and Viviano were both initially appointed to the court by a Republican governor. Of the concurring justices, only one, Justice Elizabeth Clement, was appointed by a Republican.
After the ruling, there was immediate reaction from both sides.
“The Board of Canvasses had a clear duty to certify this proposal, overwhelmingly supported by Michigan voters to the ballot and the court agreed,” said Steve Liedel, attorney and counsel for Reproductive Freedom for All.
“Today, the Michigan State Supreme Court made a monumental decision for democracy,” said Michelle Zukowski-Serlin, a volunteer with Reproductive Freedom for All.
Many supporters are thrilled that the ballot initiative, which gained nearly 600,000 valid signatures, will make it to the ballot.
“The important thing about today is that the force-birthers believed against democracy,” said Zukowski-Serlin. “We had the correct amount of signatures. We had the largest number of signatures ever on a ballot proposal.”
However, some opponents are scared about what comes next. Christen Pollo, a spokesperson for Citizens to Support Michigan Woman and Children, said they’re disappointed by the news.
“The supreme court today got it wrong,” said Pollo. “This petition is fatally-flawed but now it will be up to voters to reject it, and I believe we’ll see woman pouring out to vote ‘no’ because of how dangerous this proposed-amendment is for Michigan’s women and children.”
The Board of State Canvassers was told to certify the petition by Friday; it meets Friday at 10 a.m. and that meeting will stream on the state Senate’s website.
Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, a Democrat, praised the court’s decision in a statement and said it “underscore(s) that the role of the Board of State Canvassers under law is to affirm the will over the voters” and that it must certify petitions when they have enough signatures.
“I am grateful to the court for affirming this and hope the board now resumes its longstanding practice of working within its authority under Michigan law,” she said.
Michigan has a ban on performing abortions in nearly all circumstances that dates back to 1931. It was dormant for about 50 years between the landmark Roe v. Wade ruling and when that ruling was overturned earlier this summer. It has not been enforced while Planned Parenthood of Michigan and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer have challenged it.
A Michigan Court of Claims on Wednesday issued a permanent injunction on the enforcement of the ban, saying it violates the state constitution, but that’s unlikely to be the end of it. Whitmer has called on the Michigan Supreme Court to take up the matter.
— News 8’s Taylor Morris contributed to this report.