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Wyoming Supreme Court rejects abortion ban constitutionality questions — for now

The state’s highest court declined a request by a Teton County judge to decide on more than a dozen constitutional questions surrounding a pair of abortion bans passed last year by the Wyoming Legislature.

The Wyoming Supreme Court in September 2023 in Cheyenne. (Joshua Wolfson/WyoFile)

by Joshua Wolfson, WyoFile

The Wyoming Supreme Court won’t rule just yet on the constitutionality of the state’s abortion laws.

The high court on Tuesday declined to answer a series of constitutional questions posed by the Teton County judge who’s presiding over a legal challenge to a pair of statewide abortion bans passed last year. Both sides in that case have asked 9th District Judge Melissa Owens to rule in their favor rather than holding a trial. 

Owens has yet to decide on those motions for summary judgment. Instead, she asked the Wyoming Supreme Court last month to rule on more than a dozen questions pertaining to the constitutionality of the bans.

Wyoming Supreme Court Chief Justice Kate M. Fox (Mike Vanata/WyoFile)

In the high court’s response, Chief Justice Kate M. Fox directed Owens to rule on the pending summary judgment motions first. Owens did not provide the state Supreme Court with enough information to answer the questions, Fox’s ruling noted.

“This court acknowledges it will likely be required, at some point, to rule on the constitutionality of Wyoming’s abortion laws,” Fox wrote. “This court stands ready to do so, if and when those constitutional questions are properly presented to it.”

Owens’ ruling on the summary judgment motions could help narrow the issues the Supreme Court will eventually be asked to decide on, Fox added in her ruling.

In June 2022, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade, the landmark ruling that protected abortion rights in America for nearly 50 years. Wyoming courts have grappled with questions over the constitutionality of banning abortion here nearly the entire time since.

State lawmakers have twice passed wide-ranging bans on abortion, first as a trigger law before Roe’s fall and a second last year that rendered the first moot. In 2023, the Wyoming Legislature also instituted the nation’s first ban on abortion pills.

Supporters of abortion rights filed suit, and so far Owens has blocked enforcement of the two existing bans while the legal case plays out, keeping most abortions legal in Wyoming in the meantime. Only one clinic, in Casper, offers surgical abortions in the state.

Ambreia Fernandez-Meadows speaks at a pro-abortion rights rally in Cheyenne on June 30, 2022. (Mike Vanata/Wyofile)

Both the plaintiffs — doctors, women, an advocacy group and the clinic — and the state, which is defending the laws, have asked Owens to rule in their favor without a trial. Central to that case is the question of whether the abortion bans violate the state constitution.

In 2012, amid conservative fears surrounding the passage of Obamacare, Wyoming voters amended the constitution, declaring that adults have the right to make their own health care choices. The amendment did give state lawmakers the ability to make “reasonable and necessary restrictions on those rights … to protect the health and general welfare of the people.”

No answers yet

Whether that amendment, which ironically was touted by anti-abortion lawmakers, now prevents abortion bans in Wyoming is a key question in the case, and one that Owens last month asked the state high court to consider.

She also asked the court to rule whether the bans:

  • Violate 11 other parts of the state constitution.
  • Are unconstitutionally vague.
  • Violate Wyoming citizens’ right to privacy.

“The Court having reviewed the file and being otherwise fully advised in the premises finds that the record in this matter is fully developed and issues before the Court involve questions of law that are determinative to this action in which there does not appear to be any controlling precedent in the decisions of the Wyoming Supreme Court,” Owens wrote in her filing.

But the high court disagreed that now was the right time to wade in.

“This court believes a ruling from the district court could refine and narrow issues this Court will be called upon to determine,” Fox wrote in Tuesday’s ruling. 

The decision mirrors one the Wyoming Supreme Court made in late 2022, when Owens posed similar questions to the justices. In that instance, the high court said it couldn’t answer the questions based on the “limited factual record provided” by the lower court.

Madelyn Beck contributed to this report. 

This article was originally published by WyoFile and is republished here with permission. WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.