When Republican policymakers in North Dakota passed a “fetal heartbeat” bill in 2013, they almost certainly knew they were inviting a lawsuit the state would inevitably lose. The state law was written to ban abortions after just six weeks of pregnancy, effectively requiring some women to terminate unwanted pregnancies before they even knew they were pregnant.
The law, however, was never actually implemented. Courts imposed an injunction, confident that the policy wouldn’t withstand scrutiny. Soon after, federal district and appellate courts were unanimous in rejecting the law, just as everyone expected.
The rulings ended the legal controversy, except for one final detail: legal fees. Slate noted the other day:
[H]aving lost a constitutional case in court, North Dakota is now required to pay the attorneys’ fees of the law’s triumphant challenger. On Thursday, the state and Red River agreed on a settlement of $245,000, which will go to [Red River Women’s Clinic’s] counsel, the New York-based Center for Reproductive Rights.An international reproductive rights advocacy group, the CRR routinely wins lawsuits against restrictive abortion laws worldwide. It led the legal campaign against Texas’ onerous new clinic regulations, a fight that recently reached the Supreme Court. North Dakota’s sizable payout will help the organization continue to combat measures much like … North Dakota’s.
Remember, North Dakota’s Republican policymakers realized in advance that banning abortions after six weeks of pregnancy wouldn’t pass court muster, but they did it anyway, as something of a legal/political experiment.
It was an expensive test, paid for by North Dakota taxpayers who probably could have come up with better uses for that money.
What’s striking, however, is how often stories like these pop up.
Late last year, for example, Alabama Gov. Bob Bentley (R), before getting caught up in an extra-marital sex scandal, tried to cancel Planned Parenthood’s Medicaid contract. The Republican governor probably realized he couldn’t legally take such a step, but Bentley gave it a shot anyway. (He cited misleading videos related to fetal-tissue research, which the local Planned Parenthood affiliate did not participate in.)
It didn’t work; the courts sided with the health organization; and Alabama taxpayers had to finance a $51,000 settlement. That’s money Alabama could have used for some other purpose, were it not for Bentley’s little culture-war experiment.
If these culture war fights were merely a waste of time, they’d still be annoying. States like North Dakota and Alabama are facing plenty of real challenges, and the public is best served when their elected officials invest their time and energies into meaningful policymaking.
But it’s also a waste of money, all of which come from taxpayers, and all of which goes to progressive organizations conservatives don’t like.
If there’s any wisdom behind these culture-war fights, it’s hiding well.
Disclosure: My wife works for Planned Parenthood, but she played no role in this piece; she played no role in the aforementioned court fights; her work is unrelated to fetal-tissue research; and her work is unrelated to the affiliates in North Dakota and Alabama.