Florida top court weighs letting voters decide abortion rights amendment

By Brendan Pierson

(Reuters) - Florida's attorney general on Wednesday urged the state's highest court to block voters from deciding whether to amend the state constitution to protect abortion, arguing the measure was misleading and unclear.

Nathan Forrester, a lawyer for Republican Attorney General Ashley Moody, told the seven justices of the Florida Supreme Court that the amendment is a "Rorschach test." He said it would effectively eliminate the state's authority to regulate abortion, but that some voters might not realize how broad it was.

The proposed amendment, which last month gathered enough signatures to be put on the ballot in November, would ban laws that "prohibit, penalize, delay, or restrict abortion before viability or when necessary to protect the patient's health, as determined by the patient's healthcare provider." Abortions are currently illegal after 15 weeks in Florida.

Courtney Brewer, who is representing Floridians Protecting Freedom, the group sponsoring the measure, said the language in the amendment and its associated summary was clear.

"A reasonable voter has all the fair notice they need in this case," she said.

The justices, who were all appointed by Republican governors, appeared torn on the issue. Several were skeptical of the state's argument that the amendment was unclear about how broad it was.

"Our job is to answer whether it is a wolf in sheep's clothing," said Justice John Couriel. "That's all we get to do."

Chief Justice Carlos Muniz later called the amendment "a wolf that comes as a wolf." He said that the people of Florida "aren't stupid" and can decide whether they find it too broad.

However, Muniz said there was another possible problem with the amendment, because the state's existing constitution could be interpreted to give rights to fetuses. If the amendment changed those rights, it would need to tell voters about the change, he said.

The state had not raised that argument, though Forrester said it had "potential" when Muniz asked him about it.

Abortion rights measures have prevailed everywhere they have been put to voters, even conservative states, since the U.S. Supreme Court reversed its landmark 1972 Roe v. Wade ruling protecting abortion rights nationwide.

However, constitutional amendments in Florida must pass with at least 60% of the vote, more than any statewide abortion measure has yet won.

In last November's local elections, voters approved a constitutional amendment enshrining abortion rights in Ohio, a state that voted for Republican Donald Trump by a margin of 8 percentage points in the 2020 election. Florida is one of several states where abortion rights advocates have since sought to put the issue on the ballot.

The Florida court is currently also weighing whether to uphold the current 15-week abortion ban, and let a stricter six-week ban take effect.

(Reporting By Brendan Pierson in New York, Editing by Alexia Garamfalvi and Bill Berkrot)