Abortion politics is an emotional business. So it's no wonder that the litigants in the complaint against the parental notification initiative fought the case to the Alaska Supreme Court.
The court responded with a cool-headed ruling on Wednesday that upheld state precedent giving citizen initiatives a wide latitude before striking them from the ballot.
The Parental Notification Initiative requires doctors to make determined efforts to give parents of minor girls at least 48 hours' notice before performing an abortion. Planned Parenthood and the Alaska Civil Liberties Union sought to have the measure removed from the Aug. 24 primary ballot because they said the state's summary of the initiative left out important elements. Most notable was that doctors who violated notification rules could be subject to felony prosecution, with fines and prison time.
A Superior Court did find the summary that accompanied the signature petitions was misleading for its omissions, but also ruled that the summary could be corrected for both the official state election pamphlet and the primary ballot itself.
The Supreme Court upheld that finding, reminding us that Alaska public policy, reinforced by court decisions, is that constitutional and statutory provisions for the initiative process should be "liberally construed."
In other words, if there's a way to correct mistakes and keep an initiative on the ballot, that's what we do.
In effect, the court ruled that the benefit of the doubt goes to the initiative.
Certainly the summary was deficient in not spelling out the penalties a doctor who does not follow parental notification rules might face. As Justice Daniel Winfree wrote in a partial dissent, a summary of regulation that does not include the penalties for violating that regulation is incomplete and by omission, misleading. This wasn't a minor detail, but an important element of the law.
The new summary should spell out the penalty. Lt. Gov. Craig Campbell, whose office is responsible for the summary, should make absolutely sure that the new summary conforms to the court's ruling.
Still, the question of penalties is not the central issue. The central issue is parental notification itself.
The court's decision reflects that reality. This issue will be thoroughly vetted before the voters by Aug. 24. Both supporters and foes will make use of every public and private forum available, from rallies to debates, to argue their causes and debate the issues. Those issues will include penalties, constitutional questions and most importantly, the effect of parental notification on young women and girls and their families as they deal with unintended pregnancies. One example is on this page, from Planned Parenthood's Cecile Richards. You can be sure that the opposing side will find space here as well.
The court rightly decided that 36,000 valid signatures trumped deficiencies in the summary, and that voters knew what they were doing when they signed the petition to put parental notification on the ballot.
If there's any doubt about that, remember that a signature is not a vote. Voters will decide the issue in August, and all the information they need will be available.
BOTTOM LINE: Court protects the initiative process, and in this case, there's time to correct the flaws.