Federal judge declines to intervene in South Dakota abortion lawsuit

PIERRE, S.D.(Dakota Scout)- A federal judge is declining to intervene in a state court action brought to invalidate petitions for a ballot issue legalizing abortion in South Dakota.

But Judge Karen Schreier is also leaving open the door that the federal courts could review any state action that conflicts with prior federal rulings.

“If the state court ruling contradicts a federal court order, this court will consider the issue at that time,” Schreier wrote.

Her order was in response to an action brought by Dakotans for Health to add abortion opponents Life Defense Fund, Rep. Jon Hansen and Leslee Unruh to a federal lawsuit filed in 2021 that resulted in the federal courts issuing an injunction on South Dakota from enforcing a law that required petition circulators to prove they had been state residents for at least 30 days.

The residency issue is a key element of a state lawsuit that Life Defense Fund brought last month against the South Dakota Secretary of State’s Office. The office validated Dakotans for Health’s ballot issue that would amend the state Constitution to guarantee abortion rights.

The state action seeks to have signatures thrown out that, Life Defense Fund contends, violate state law. Included in those were signatures collected by non-South Dakota residents.

But Dakotans for Health argues that the residency requirement contradicts previous federal court rulings that barred the state of South Dakota from enforcing a 30 day residency requirement. Life Defense Fund argues those previous court rulings apply to a law that is no longer on the books, and that an older residency requirement is still on the books and valid.

But Schreier noted that the state court action “implicates numerous questions of law, some seemingly outside the scope of this court’s previous holding.” That, she added, was a reason not to intrude in the state action.

Schreier also noted that the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals has counseled federal district courts not to “embarrass state court proceedings except in extraordinary cases where the threat of harm is severe and imminent.” The exceptions are when a state court issues an order that contradicts a federal ruling or when a state action exists solely to undermine a federal ruling.

“Thus, because the state court’s decision in this matter may not, in the end, undermine federal jurisdiction, this court in its discretion declines to issue an injunction at this time,” she wrote.