Wording of Missouri stem cell ballot summary prompts two lawsuits

Thursday, February 12, 2009 | 4:29 p.m. CST; updated 5:50 p.m. CST, Thursday, February 12, 2009

JEFFERSON CITY — A proposed constitutional amendment barring the use of public funds for abortion and human cloning has prompted dueling lawsuits contending the ballot summary is insufficient and unfair.

At issue is a proposed ballot measure sponsored by the Missouri Roundtable for Life, a critic of embryonic stem cell research. The organization contends Missouri's secretary of state, auditor and attorney general conspired to prepare an unfair ballot summary for the proposal.

A second lawsuit, filed by stem cell research supporters, contends the proposal is improperly drafted and the summary shouldn't be allowed to go forward. That suit also claims the ballot summary is unfair.

Steve Clark, a lawyer for Missouri Roundtable for Life, said Monday that the three elected officials have not treated stem cell research critics fairly and worked on the ballot summary with stem cell research supporters such as the Missouri Coalition for Lifesaving Cures.

"We believe that the secretary of state, the attorney general and the auditor are conspiring among themselves and with others to prevent pro-life and anti-cloning groups from ever getting their proposed constitutional amendments before the voters," he said.

Clark, whose lawsuit was filed Friday in the Capitol's home of Cole County, added that, "Something rotten is going on here, and we're going to get to the bottom of this."

Initiative petition sponsors can submit language that they would prefer to appear on the ballot. But under Missouri law, the secretary of state's office is responsible for drafting the summary. The state auditor is responsible for preparing a cost estimate, and the attorney general reviews those documents.

The second lawsuit, also filed Friday, was brought by St. Louis attorney Eric Westacott and Columbia disability advocate Bob Pund. Westacott was paralyzed in a 1993 softball game, and Pund was paralyzed in a 1989 auto accident.

In a written statement released Tuesday by their attorney, Pund and Westacott said the ballot measure is an attempt to "rob us of our hope for the future."

"The possibility that stem research could help current patients and others yet to encounter our situations too valuable of a prospect not to defend," Westacott and Pund said in the joint statement.

Lawsuits challenging ballot language have become relatively common in recent years. But most of those suits have sought simply to rewrite proposed language. The one filed by Missouri Roundtable for Life goes further in its allegations.

Besides a new ballot summary and cost estimate, the Missouri Roundtable for Life is also seeking punitive damages, permission to investigate how the summaries were prepared and court supervision over the handling of ballot measures by the secretary of state, state auditor and attorney general.

Ryan Hobart, a spokesman for Secretary of State Robin Carnahan, said he doesn't know if the Missouri Coalition for Lifesaving Cures had contacted the office but that groups often do. Hobart denied that there had been any coordinated effort and defended the fairness of the summary prepared by the secretary of state.

"Those accusations are baseless," he said. "We are often contacted by multiple groups, multiple people about the summary process."

A spokesman for the Coalition for Lifesaving Cures said that he is not aware of anyone from the organization discussing proposed ballot language with the elected officials.

"These guys are throwing mud at the wall to see what will stick," coalition spokesman Jim Goodwin said.

A spokesman for Attorney General Chris Koster said the office's involvement "is a legal duty, not a conspiracy." Spokesman Travis Ford said the attorney general will aggressively defend against the lawsuit.

Joe Martin, the chief of staff for State Auditor Susan Montee, declined to comment.

The main issue in the lawsuit is over the ballot language that would appear before voters on the 2010 ballot if backers get enough support.

The Missouri Roundtable for Life suggested ballot language asking voters whether to amend the state constitution "to make it unlawful to expend, pay or grant any public funds for abortion services, human cloning or prohibited human research, as such terms were defined by the Missouri General Assembly in 2003."

The language approved by the secretary of state's office asks if the constitution should be amended to "make it illegal for the Legislature or state or local governments to expend, pay or grant public funds to hospitals or other institutions for certain research and services, as defined by the General Assembly in section 196.1127, Revised Statutes of Missouri, 2003, such as abortion services, including those necessary to save the life of the mother, and certain types of stem cell research currently allowed under Missouri law."

Westacott and Pund suggest adding to the secretary of state's version further description of "public funds" to include that donations, grants and federal money could be affected. They also propose further clarification that the Legislature's definitions of abortion and stem cell research used in the ballot measure were "for another purpose."

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