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Abortions remain legal in Louisiana after judge rejects AG Landry's request to enforce ban

Jeff Landry _19th_071822.jpg
Paul Braun
/
WRKF
Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry (left) addresses the media after a court hearing on the state's abortion "trigger laws" while Solicitor General Liz Murrill and attorney John Balhoff look on. July 18, 2022.

A Baton Rouge judge on Tuesday rejected Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry’s request to allow enforcement of the state’s near-absolute abortion ban while a court case challenging the legality of the ban plays out.

The ruling is just the latest in a long line of temporary restraining orders and injunctions that have repeatedly blocked the state’s disputed trigger laws and allowed abortions to continue in Louisiana despite the U.S. Supreme Court’s historic overturning of Roe v. Wade last month.

Judge Donald Johnson of the 19th Judicial District Court granted abortion providers a preliminary injunction last week blocking the enforcement of the ban.

Landry appealed Johnson’s ruling to the state’s First Circuit Court of Appeals on Friday, the same day he asked Johnson to allow the attorney general’s office to enforce the blocked trigger ban.

Johnson rejected that request on Tuesday, saying the plaintiffs challenging the ban showed that the ambiguity in the law could lead to negative health outcomes. The ruling means that abortion care will remain legal in Louisiana at least until the First Circuit rules on the ban.

“Plaintiffs have presented evidence and well-reasoned arguments of how Louisianan’s criminal abortion laws, the three “Trigger Bans,” have been expressively and inconsistently interpreted by independent state-law prosecutorial officials,” Johnson wrote. “Plaintiffs have likewise shown how such “Trigger Bans”... could reasonably be misunderstood and misapplied by healthcare professionals and by interpretation of ordinary citizens.”

In court filings, Dr. Valerie Williams, a New Orleans OB/GYN, said in a sworn statement that during one of the brief periods in which the abortion ban was in effect, her hospital’s attorneys told her not to perform a routine “dilation and evacuation” abortion procedure as requested by a pregnant patient whose water broke at 16 weeks. The decision forced the patient to undergo a “painful” and “unnecessary” labor and delivery of a nonviable fetus.

Before Williams’ statement, a dozen doctors and one midwife also submitted affidavits in the lawsuit, arguing that the ban put their careers — and their patients’ lives — at risk.

Attorney Joanna Wright, who has led the legal challenge on behalf of the plaintiffs, praised Johnson’s ruling in a statement.

“This decision ensures that Louisiana will continue to provide crucial health care to women,” Wright said. “Whether on appeal or in a Baton Rouge trial court, we will continue to prove the unconstitutionality of this patchwork set of laws.”

Despite the setback, Landry said he is confident that a higher court will ultimately uphold the trigger bans.

“We trust the First Circuit will apply the law properly and reverse Judge Johnson’s ruling,” Landry wrote in a tweet. “Our laws are clear, and we will prevail in defending them.”

The plaintiffs’ legal challenge of the trigger laws will face increasingly long odds of success as it moves up the judicial system in Louisiana. At the district court level, Johnson, a Democrat, had sole discretion in issuing rulings in the case. But at the next stage, the First Circuit Court of Appeals, which is comprised of 11 Republicans and one Democrat, will appoint a three-judge panel to hear the case.

At any time, the Louisiana Legislature could render this legal challenge moot by repealing the patchwork of abortion trigger laws currently on the books and replacing them with a streamlined ban that addresses some of the ambiguity that prompted abortion providers’ lawsuits. The vast majority of Louisiana state lawmakers have made it clear through dozens of votes on prospective abortion restrictions that they are willing to enact abortion bans that would take effect in the earliest stages of pregnancy and would not include exceptions for rape and incest.

Paul Braun is WRKF's Capitol Access reporter.