A Nevada district court judge threw out a proposed "personhood" state ballot measure Friday arguing that the language is "too general in nature."
District Judge James Russell further ruled that the initiative which seeks to extend constitutional protections to fertilized eggs has sweeping implications for reproductive health care and thus violates state law which limits initiatives to a single subject.
"There’s no way for the voter to understand the effects of the initiative," Russell said.
Silver State anti-choice activists have been pushing a constitutional amendment that proposed to upend the law with a scant 14-word sentence: "In the great state of Nevada, the term ”person’ applies to every human being."
Critics charge the hazy wording was meant to shadow its true intent to ban abortion, contraception, in-vitro fertilization and embryonic stem cell research.
Michael Brooks, the attorney for Personhood Nevada, countered that "the proposal was not vague, and that ‘any eight-year-old’ could understand it," according to an account by the Riverside, Calif., Press-Enterprise.
"This is far beyond the isolated issue of abortion," he said. "Just because it’s broad doesn’t mean it’s vague.
"We’re not trying to hide the ball," he said.
Brooks said the intent was to protect the "dignity" of human life, and that any rulings as to how the amendment effected other areas of law would be up to future courts to decide.
He cited human experiments conducted by the Nazis and slavery as the need for defining all people as human beings.
Taking a decidedly less bombastic approach, ACLU of Nevada attorney Lee Rowland argued on behalf of Planned Parenthood of Nevada and three plaintiffs that the constitutional amendment would have broad repercussions for reproductive health. She refuted the so-called simplicity of the language as a legal nightmare.
The judge agreed with Rowland ruling that the petition language didn’t meet the test of state ballot law. It has "complex implications." said Russell.
"Today’s decision rightfully prevents this sweeping and misleading initiative from being placed on the 2010 ballot,” said Rowland in a prepared statement by the ACLU and Nevada Advocates of Planned Parenthood Affiliates following the ruling.
“This initiative could have impacted literally thousands of laws, inviting lawyers and the courts to reinterpret every Nevada law and regulation that contains the word ‘person’ all at the expense of Nevada taxpayers. The key problem is that it covered too many issues, and failed to explain to voters its intent and impact on Nevada law."
The legal defeat is a first for personhood activists who narrowly skirted similar court challenges over vague language in Colorado in 2007 and Montana a year later.
After getting the go-ahead by the Colorado Supreme Court, activists successfully petitioned the first-in-the-nation measure on to the ballot only to be defeated in a 73-27 landslide. The Montana group was unable to reach its petition signature threshold. Both state groups are collecting petitions for another run at the ballot in 2010 along with 37 other states, according to Personhood USA, the Denver-based national group that rose from the ashes of the 2008 Colorado loss.
How the other far-flung campaigns are proceeding is unclear. The state Web sites are rarely updated and accurate financial information is difficult, if not impossible, to obtain.
Personhood USA posted an urgent fundraising request on its Web site late in the day Dec. 31 stating that it "must raise $60,000 this week to invest in Mississippi and Colorado to ensure ballot access." Both states have fast approaching mid-February petition deadlines.
The most recent efforts in Colorado have been marked by poor fundraising, little press attention and an ugly falling out with a previously allied group, American Right to Life Action.
The Personhood Mississippi push has been rocked by on-going confusion over ballot deadlines and a well-under-the-radar campaign. Nsombi Lambright, executive director of the ACLU of Mississippi, said the group appears to be working on a parallel legislative effort with a constitutional amendment that will require a two-thirds vote of the general assembly to place the initiative on the ballot should the petition effort fail.
Lambright said she isn’t detecting any enthusiasm among state lawmakers to wade into a protracted and highly contentious process to approve a personhood amendment. She doesn’t expect it to get far.
But the fight is still on for the Nevada coeterie despite today’s setback — even without the support of three prominent conservative groups that denounced the personhood movement as a distraction, if not harmful, to the overall anti-abortion cause.
Olaf Vancura of Personhood Nevada told the Las Vegas Sun the group plans to appeal Russell’s decision to the Nevada Supreme Court.
UPDATE: 01-11-10, 3:30 PM EST
In a written statement. Personhood USA legal analyst Gualberto Garcia-Jones said he "was disturbed by the Judge’s comments. ‘Judge Russell is being disingenuous.’ and abusing his power by jumping the gun by prejudging the effect of the law."
Garcia-Jones is also leading a reprised petition process for the Colorado ballot measure that lost in 2008 by a 46-point margin.
Garcia-Jones claims the 14-word ballot text is supported by a 200-word description that critics argue, and the judge concurred, is as convoluted as the title:
The Nevada constitution states,”No person shall be deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law.“ Currently, some Nevadans are deprived of their inalienable civil rights, specifically their fundamental right to live, due to an arbitrary and discriminatory distinction between person and human being. While the state has no authority to grant inalienable rights, it has the obligation to protect them. This amendment therefore applies the term “person” to every human being. ‘Human being’ includes everyone possessing a human genome specific for an individual member of the human species, from the beginning of his or her biological development, without discrimination as to age, health, reproduction method, function, physical or mental dependency, or cognitive ability. This amendment benefits all Nevadans by guaranteeing, as envisioned by our founding fathers, that no one shall be deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law. It eliminates discrimination against Nevadans at the beginning of life and prohibits state intrusion in end of life decisions. This amendment codifies the inalienable right to life for everyone, young or old, healthy or ill, conscious or unconscious, born or unborn. It assures protection and dignity to our children, our infirmed and our seniors.
Olaf Vancura, who is leading the Nevada personhood initiative campaign, echoed the shaky legal and ethical premise that zygote freedoms are the next great civil rights struggle since the 1857 U.S. Supreme Court Dred Scott decision. “Civil rights initiatives, by their nature, tend to have broad scope, yet are still a single subject issue. Under the logic and precedent of this court, ANY civil rights initiative brought forth by the people of this great state will be struck down as overly broad," Vancura groused.