A war of semantics filled Judge Malcolm Harrison's courtroom this afternoon, as opposing parties debated the constitutionality of a 2011 ballot initiative asking voters to determine when life begins.
Personhood Mississippi leader Les Riley and other anti-abortion advocates, who led efforts to collect 106, 325 signatures to qualify the initiative, filled the interior of the courtroom along with representatives from the ACLU and Planned Parenthood.
The 2011 ballot initiative will ask voters if the word "person" in the Mississippi Constitution will include "every human being from the moment of life, fertilization, cloning, or the equivalent thereof." Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann could deliver the initiative to the state Legislature in January for final approval, and it could then appear on the 2011 ballot for voters to decide.
Attorney Cliff Johnson, co-counsel to attorney Rob McDuff, claims the initiative violates section 273 of the state Bill of Rights, which states that a voter initiative "shall not be used for the proposal, modification or repeal of any portion of the bill of rights of this constitution." In July, McDuff, Planned Parenthood and the ACLU filed a lawsuit on behalf of two residents against Hosemann claiming the initiative was unconstitutional.
"If the word 'person' is to be determined by article 26 (of the Bill of Rights), then the state would be required to find some way to account for fetuses in utero to determine the number of citizens in the state of Mississippi," Johnson argued. "Whether it would affect redistricting efforts or administrative measures taken by the state is under question, but no doubt it would affect and modify the definition of citizens under the Constitution. Such a modification under the initiative process is prohibited."
Liberty Counsel attorney Steve Crampton, who is representing Personhood Mississippi in the suit, argued that Personhood is merely clarifying the Bill of Rights and that the words "modify," "proposal" and "repeal" are not clearly defined in the Bill of Rights.
Harrison said he would consider the arguments and "quickly" deliver a ruling. Johnson said he did not know when Harrison would rule, but suggested it would come before the 2011 legislative session. He also said he expects the losing party to appeal the ruling to the state Supreme Court.