High court vacancy adds ‘urgency’ to Minnesota legislative races

Published 7:01 am Wednesday, September 23, 2020

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By Brian Bakst

The injection of a United States Supreme Court nomination fight with just six weeks left in the 2020 campaign could have political ripples beyond who serves in Washington.

A new justice to fill the vacancy left by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death would likely alter the ideological makeup of the court and potentially set a new course on abortion and reproductive health. It puts added focus on who writes Minnesota’s laws in those areas.

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“I would say the sense of urgency changed,” said Maggie Meyer, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Minnesota.

On the other side of the issue, Paul Stark, of Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life, agreed.

“It does put abortion front and center again,” he said.

That’s because President Donald Trump plans to nominate a new justice, almost certainly a conservative to replace the liberal Ginsburg. And the Republican-led Senate intends to hold confirmation hearings soon and a vote this year.

Abortion restrictions approved by many states that have been held back by the Supreme Court could be ripe for a new airing and a different result when the next justice is seated.

NARAL’s Meyer said that’s why the makeup of the Minnesota Legislature matters, calling the Ginsburg death “a moment of clarity.”

Almost instantly, she said interest in volunteering for phone banks and other voter outreach shot up.

“I think there had been a real worry amongst progressive coalitions and progressive candidates about talking about abortion that it might scare people away,” Meyer said. “But I think folks are coming out of the woodwork and saying, ‘I support abortion and I’m voting because I support it and I’m afraid we’ll lose access.’”

On the other side of the issue, Stark said a reconfigured high court where justices opposed to legal abortion hold sway underscores the importance of having legislators who would enact restrictions.

“It will affect what we can do in Minnesota in the Minnesota Legislature,” Stark said. “Can we enact an admitting privileges law here or ultrasound legislation or protection for unborn children after 20 weeks when they can feel pain?”

Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life is playing a bit of defense this year, too. The group is concerned about a fully DFL controlled Legislature and a Democratic governor trying to roll back a waiting-period law and a grant program that promotes alternatives to abortion.

Heading into November, DFLers hold power in the Minnesota House and Republicans have an edge in the state Senate.

Stark said confirmation hearings on the cusp of an election could draw some voters who had been prioritizing other things back to the fold.

A plurality of Americans say a candidate’s position on abortion is important when deciding how to vote, but most say they’re open to voting for candidates with different positions on abortion depending on other factors. This has held relatively steady over decades of Gallup polling.

At the state Capitol, the Republican-led Senate — with the support of a few rural seat DFLers — have advanced abortion bills in recent years, including a proposed ban on the procedure after 20 weeks of pregnancy and a requirement that doctors offer to show a woman an ultrasound prior to the procedure. The House hasn’t taken them up since DFLers gained control in 2019.

Legislators from both parties are still trying to feel out how much Ginsburg’s death changes the political landscape.

House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, said her party won back the majority two years ago on the strength of suburban victories. She said most of the key victories were by female candidates who supported abortion rights.

“To the extent that losing Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg elevates the issue of choice in this election cycle, that is good news for Democratic candidates in the suburbs who are likely to see this help them,” Hortman said.

But Hortman says it’s too soon to say how prominent a role the issue will play in the closing weeks.

“This does clarify the stakes of the game for Republican voters,” said Deputy House Minority Leader Ann Neu, R-North Branch. But she added that state-level Republican candidates will continue to focus their attention on public safety measures rather than shift the conversation at this stage.

“That’s what’s at the forefront of voters’ minds and I don’t think that the passing of Justice Ginsburg is going to change that,” she said.

Neu said the vacancy and the politics around it will have a larger bearing on the race for president and U.S. Senate. She said she believes it will solidify the decisions of voters who oppose legal abortion.

Minnesota Senate Minority Leader Susan Kent, DFL-Woodbury, agrees voters won’t necessarily draw the connection between the Supreme Court and their state legislators.

And it won’t play out evenly across every district in a year when all 201 House and Senate seats are up.

“Most people in a lot of ways have made up their mind on a bunch of races and it’s just going to be who feels more galvanized one way or the other or less so,” Kent said.

But she said the debate ahead over a nominee will undoubtedly overlap with what Democratic candidates are talking about in their campaigns.

“It’s about people’s opportunity to have good health care, which includes reproductive health care,” she said.

Even if the Supreme Court reverses or pokes big holes in its landmark Roe v. Wade abortion ruling, it wouldn’t have the immediate effect in Minnesota as it would in other states.

A 1995 state Supreme Court ruling upheld abortion access for women in public insurance programs. A bill to undo that has been consistently introduced at the Capitol. It would encounter an almost-certain veto from DFL Gov. Tim Walz, who has two years left on his term.

The only way around his resistance would be through a constitutional amendment that the Legislature has sole power to put on the next statewide ballot.

State Sen. Michelle Benson, R-Ham Lake, said talk of a future amendment is “a bit far afield” from pivotal state matters before voters this November.

“In the general conversation, COVID, I think the noise of the presidential election, the fact that we have a deficit, I think those are more prescient to Minnesota voters,” Benson said.

But she said a confirmation showdown for a court nominee will ratchet up the political noise.

“I think there’s going to be an increase in what was already a high-energy election. And I think there’s going to be more vitriol on either side,” Benson said. “So I would say legislative candidates need to continue to bring people back to the important work that the Legislature does.”

MPR News data reporter David H. Montgomery contributed to this report.