Michael Moline, Florida Phoenix
The Florida Supreme Court is bracing for a crowd during oral arguments on Friday over the future of abortion rights in the state, as organizations on both sides of that issue planned to wave their flags in the state capital and the whole country will be watching.
Meanwhile, Floridians Protecting Freedom, which is circulating petitions seeking to attach explicit abortion rights in the Florida Constitution, announced Wednesday that it has collected enough signatures — 25% of the 891,589 needed to qualify for the ballot — to merit Supreme Court review of its ballot language.
If the court concludes the language meets the legal requirements, including that it isn’t misleading about what the proposed amendment would do, the initiative would appear on the 2024 general election ballot. Attorney General Ashley Moody, who’s argued against abortion rights in filings with the court, would make a case for placing the initiative on the ballot or keeping it off. An anti-abortion Protect Human Life Florida petition is also circulating.
“Florida has never seen a citizen initiative with the momentum and grassroots support of our amendment to limit government interference in personal medical decisions,” Moné Holder, executive committee member of the organization, said in a written statement. “And the Sept. 8 oral arguments over Florida’s current 15-week ban have only served as another reminder of the threat abortion bans pose to our freedoms.”
The court will decide in Planned Parenthood of Southwest and Central Florida v. State of Florida whether to overturn its 1989 ruling that the Privacy Clause the voters added to the state Constitution in 1980 includes the right to abortion. The case arose as a challenge to Florida’s 15-week abortion ban; a six-week abortion ban would take effect 30 days later if the court upholds the 15-week ban.
A group of abortion providers argue that the clause does protect abortion; anti-abortion forces, including Gov. Ron DeSantis, Attorney General Ashley Moody, and members of the Republican-dominated state Legislature, argue that amendment was intended to protect only the privacy of people’s personal information.
Representing the providers are the ACLU, ACLU of Florida, Center for Reproductive Rights, Planned Parenthood Federation of America, and the Jenner & Block law firm.
“We are in court today to protect Floridians’ right to make their own decisions about their pregnancies, their bodies, and their futures,” those organizations said in a written statement Wednesday.
“The attempt by Gov. DeSantis and his allies to overturn established law, in defiance of the Florida Constitution, the will of voters, and the rule of law, is deeply misguided and dangerous. We hope the Florida Supreme Court will recognize that politicians’ thinly veiled attempt to uproot the rule of law would needlessly put people’s health and lives at risk and decide to preserve the long-established right to abortion Floridians have relied on for decades,” it reads.
Preparatory to Friday’s oral arguments in the case, the court hasn’t taken any extra security precautions, spokesman Paul Flemming told the Phoenix by email, but the justices are aware of the keen public interest in the case.
“Staff at the Supreme Court have certainly prepared for what we expect to be a full courtroom,” Flemming wrote.
“Capacity in the courtroom is 165 people — it’s a fire marshal limit — and that is strictly enforced. Because we expect a large group the court will have a full complement of staff on hand and ready to help people through security. It’s all standard stuff, but we are aware of the focus on Friday,” he added.
Staff have conferred with organizations advocating for and against abortion rights.
“We control court property — it’s public and people are welcome as long as they allow the regular business of the Supreme Court to go on,” Flemming wrote.
“I do not think it is accurate to say the Florida Supreme Court has ramped up security in preparation for oral argument. But it is fair to say staff and the Marshal’s Office are focused on what will be a large crowd for a high-interest case and providing a smooth public experience of access to the Supreme Court’s work.”
He pointed to a guide to etiquette at the Supreme Court.
The case has attracted national attention, including amicus briefs from religious groups both opposing and favoring access to abortion, plus medical and social-justice groups, 19 states that already have restricted abortion access, and Republican leaders of the Florida Legislature itself. Given more restrictive limits elsewhere in the Southeast, Florida even with its 15-week ban has attracted patients from throughout the region, according to providers.
It’s also attracting demonstrators. The Women’s March announced plans for a protest in front of the court building on Friday plus a gathering Common Ground Books at 128 N. Bronough Street.
“This space will be held for community building and mutual aid in counter of the court hearing. We will have several tables with different education and resources; including petitions, thousands of Plan B, Julie Pills, condoms, stickers, literature and more to help prevent pregnancy and get people access to the most current abortion care systems,” the group says on its website.
An abortion rights rally is scheduled to begin in front of the Supreme Court at 4 p.m. on Friday.
Anna Eskamani, the Democratic state House member who supports the petition drive, cautioned against drawing any inference from crowd size.
“The hope is that it’ll be a good showing, but we don’t need everyone to be pulled away from collecting signatures. We’ve got to get this on the ballot,” she said in a telephone interview.
Short attention spans
But these events serve a purpose, Eskamani added.
“The challenge with any type of political organizing is that folks have a short attention span, and they forget what has already happened compared to what is current law, what is pending. By showing resistance we are also building awareness. That’s very important.”
Anti-abortion activists were cautiously optimistic about the case’s outcome — as the Tampa Bay Times noted Wednesday, a number of the justices, including DeSantis’ appointees, are known for their anti-abortion views.
Anthony Verdugo, founder and executive director of the Christian Family Coalition Florida, hopes to arrive at court in time to snag a seat.
“We are looking forward to a positive decision from the court that gives full jurisdiction to the Legislature when it comes to pro-life laws,” he said in a phone interview.
“DeSantis appointed justices and voters voted for DeSantis because they wanted to see justices on the court that actually properly interpreted the Constitution based on intent and not based on what their worldview is,” Verdugo added.
Andrew Shirvell, founder and director of Florida Voice for the Unborn, has the same plan.
“There’s really nothing for us to be protesting about. And when I say ‘us,’ I mean those of us on the pro-life side,” he said.
“This is widely expected that the Florida Supreme Court will undo their previous abortion precedents starting back from 1989 and clarify that the Privacy Clause to the state Constitution doesn’t include the right to access abortion,” Shirvell added. “We’re confident that the decision is going to go our way.”
Shirvell, who’s criticized DeSantis for not going even further to limit abortion access, took a shot at the governor.
“Hopefully they won’t do what they did at the 15-week abortion ban signing in 2022 where they escorted all the establishment figures, the elite people, the DeSantis supporters, into the building first while the rest of us, including myself, had to wait and sweat it outside and hope that we get a seat,” he said.
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