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Wyoming Supreme Court declines to take up state abortion case

Teton County District Judge Melissa Owens listens to arguments during a hearing on Wyoming's abortion laws.
Kathryn Ziesig
Jackson Hole News&Guide
Teton County District Judge Melissa Owens listens to arguments during a hearing on Wyoming's abortion laws.

The Wyoming Supreme Court has declined to rule on the future of abortion access in the state. The move is just the latest development in the lengthy legal battle over reproductive rights in the Cowboy State.

Teton County District Judge Melissa Owens had asked the high court to decide if the state’s near-total and medical abortion bans — passed by the state legislature last year — are constitutional, sending over 14 questions for the justices to answer.

The abortion laws have been blocked from going into effect while challenges to them make their way through the courts.

The supreme court said in a Tuesday morning notice that the district judge did not provide the facts necessary to weigh in on some questions, such as whether the abortion laws violate Wyomingites’ religious liberty and if they’re unconstitutionally vague.

“This Court acknowledges it will likely be required, at some point, to rule on the constitutionality of Wyoming’s abortion laws,” the notice read. “This Court stands ready to do so, if and when those constitutional questions are properly presented to it.”

The court said that it and the litigants would be “best served” if the district court makes a ruling first. Both parties — the state’s defense team and abortion access advocates — have made requests for summary judgment in their favor.

This is the second time the supreme court has sent the case back to the lower court in the past two years, saying there weren't enough facts in the case record. This move came as a surprise to both those for and against abortion access.

“I’m having a sense of déjà vu,” said Marti Halverson, who leads the anti abortion group, Wyoming Right to Life. “Now, I thought that Judge Owens, this time, had accumulated a sufficient record for the supreme court to consider.”

Christine Lichtenfels, who’s a plaintiff and leads the abortion advocacy group Chelsea’s Fund, said this is just another step in the lengthy legal battle.

“We remain optimistic, and hopeful that Wyoming's values of freedom and equality embodied in the Wyoming Constitution will continue to protect Wyoming women from dangerous and demeaning governmental overreach,” said Lichtenfels.

Abortion remains legal in Wyoming while the case makes its way back to Teton County court.

Hanna is KHOL's senior reporter and managing editor. A lot of her work focuses on housing and local politics, but also women's health — and whatever else she finds interesting. You can hear her reporting around the country and region on NPR, Wyoming Public Radio and community radio stations around the west. She hails from Bend, Oregon, where she reported for outlets such as the Atlantic, High Country News and Oregon Public Broadcasting. In her free time, you can find Hanna scaling rock walls or adventuring in the mountains.
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