Merits of personhood lawsuit debated during court hearing

JACKSON – Attorneys argued Thursday about whether a ballot proposal to define the beginning of life illegally alters the Bill of Rights in the state Constitution or “essentially filling a gap.”
Attorneys opposed to the “personhood” initiative have filed a lawsuit in the Hinds County Circuit Court to keep the issue from being placed on the November 2011 election ballot.
Hinds Circuit Judge Malcolm Harrison heard arguments in the case Thursday and said, “I will get you a ruling as quickly as I can.”
Les Riley of Pontotoc led an effort this past year to get enough signatures of registered voters – about 90,000 – to place on the ballot the initiative that defines life as beginning “at the moment of fertilization, cloning or equivalent.”
Jackson attorneys Cliff Johnson and Rob McDuff, arguing for the ALCU and others, said the initiative is unconstitutional because the Constitution prohibits the initiative process from being used to alter the Bill of Rights.
Johnson argued that sections of the Constitution “makes clear the Bill of Rights is different. It is special. Because it is special, it can’t be changed through the initiative process, so the Constitution says.”
The Bill of Rights makes numerous references to a person’s rights. For instance, the Bill of Rights defines each person as a citizen of the state and of the country. If the personhood amendment passes, it would require a fetus to be counted as part of the official census conducted every 10 years, Johnson reasoned.
But attorney Steve Crampton of Tupelo, who is with the Virginia-based Liberty Council, countered that the initiative would not create any new rights, but is simply “defining terms already found in the Bill of Rights … This is essentially filling a gap.”
Crampton said that because the proposal is going through the “onerous” initiative process to get on the ballot, “it is subject to a strong presumption of constitutionality.”
Crampton also argued that Harrison does not have jurisdiction on the case, though Harold Pizzata of the attorney general’s office, representing Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann, agreed with Johnson and McDuff that the circuit judge does have jurisdiction.
Hosemann is being sued in the case to prevent him from delivering the initiative signatures to the Legislature in January. Under the initiative process, Hosemann delivers the signatures to the Legislature. The Legislature can then decide to put an alternative proposal on the ballot alongside the initiative.
Pizzata did not argue the merits of the lawsuit, leaving that to Crampton and Johnson.
Riley sat with Crampton during the arguments and afterward said the lawsuit was an effort “to deny the rights of Mississippians to participate in the process.”

Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal