Interpretation of the Utah Constitution will likely determine fate of abortion trigger law

Jul 12, 2022, 5:00 PM
utah constitution abortion...
Image of the Utah Constitution, courtesy of Utah State Archives,

SALT LAKE CITY — The fate of an abortion trigger law rests largely on the interpretation of the Utah Constitution, a process that could play out over months or years. 

The Utah trigger law, S.B. 174, was placed on hold this week when Third District Court Judge Andrew Stone issued a preliminary injunction. The injunction was sought by Planned Parenthood of Utah, the plaintiffs in a lawsuit filed against the state over S.B. 174.

But the issuing of a preliminary injunction is not a decision on the merits of the constitutionality of Utah’s trigger law. As Planned Parenthood’s attorney Julie Murray explained to KSL at Night, “It’s a decision that maintains the status quo until a decision on the merits (of S.B. 174) can be made.”

The status quo, in this case, allows for abortion up to 18 weeks of pregnancy.

What triggered Utah’s trigger law

When the United States Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade several weeks ago in the case of Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, it held that the U.S. Constitution did not confer a right to abortion. In some cases, the decision had a quick domino effect, as so-called “trigger laws” took effect in thirteen states. These laws automatically either restricted or banned abortions in most cases in the event Roe v. Wade was overturned.

As of this writing, only Kentucky, South Dakota, and Louisiana’s laws have taken effect. For some of the other states, there is a waiting period of 25-30 days before the law goes into effect.

And for still other states, including Utah, there are legal challenges to their trigger laws based on state laws and constitutions.

The abortion trigger law and the Utah Constitution

The argument to protect abortion rights in Utah is based on the state constitution, not the federal Constitution.

“States are free to adopt even more protective portions of their constitution,” Murray explained. “That is what Utah has done in its constitution. It has protections for the family unit, for equal rights for men and women, for bodily integrity. The U.S. Constitution uses very different language.”

“Constitutionally irrelevant” 

The state of Utah’s legal brief did not address these arguments directly. It said that the plaintiff’s claims were “constitutionally irrelevant.”

The House sponsor of the trigger law, Karianne Lisonbee, R-Clearfield, told KSL at Night she was very disappointed with the court’s decision to issue an injunction.

“He seemed to have written his opinion before the hearing,” she said. “He came in with it ready to go. He mistakenly claimed that the legislature didn’t look before it leaped.”

The case heads first to trial, then perhaps to the Utah Court of Appeals and even the Utah Supreme Court. The Utah Supreme Court is the ultimate interpreter of the Utah Constitution, so it would be up to Utah’s highest court to decide whether the state constitution’s unique language requires a different result than the U.S. Supreme Court found in Dobbs.

A final decision could take months, or more likely years, to make it through the appeal process.

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Interpretation of the Utah Constitution will likely determine fate of abortion trigger law