By JACK ELLIOTT JR.
JACKSON — An amendment that seeks to define life as beginning at conception and one about eminent domain can appear on the Nov. 8 general election ballot, the Mississippi Supreme Court ruled on Thursday.
A majority of the nine justices reinforced a 2000 ruling that said they cannot rule on the constitutionality of measures until voters or legislators have had a chance to pass them. The court dismissed challenges filed by opponents.
Eminent domain is the process that government uses to take private land for projects ranging from road construction to industrial development. The proposed amendment would prohibit state and local government from taking private land to give to another person or business.
An initiative to require people show proper ID to vote also will be on the ballot. The state Election Commission meets Friday to finalize the sample ballot that will be sent to counties.
“Over 100,000 Mississippi citizens expressed their desire to have a voice on the Personhood and Eminent Domain constitutional initiatives. The Supreme Court has decided to allow the initiatives to stay on the ballot. Voters will now determine whether these initiatives will be part of our constitution,” Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann said in a statement.
Two Hinds County circuit judges had earlier rejected opponents’ arguments against the amendments dealing with life beginning at conception or “personhood” and eminent domain. The judges said each had gotten the proper number of signatures to be placed on the ballot. The judges did not address the constitutional issues raised in either lawsuit.
“This court is without power to determine the constitutionality of a proposed statute, amendment, or initiative prior to its approval by the Legislature or electorate,” wrote Justice Randy Pierce in a 7-2 decision.
While abortion has been central in the debate about personhood, those in the lawsuit have clashed over whether it oversteps the boundaries for proposed state constitutional amendments.
Groups that support abortion rights — Planned Parenthood Federation of America and the state and national chapters of the American Civil Liberties Union — helped sue.
“A measure will be on the ballot that will allow the government to dictate what is a private matter that’s best decided by a woman, her family and within the context of her faith. Mississippi voters should reject this intrusive and dangerous measure,” said Nsombi Lambright, executive director of the ACLU of Mississippi.
Others — such as Pro-Life Mississippi, the American Family Association and the Mississippi Baptist Convention — support it.
Keith Mason of Arvada, Colo., co-founder of Personhood USA, said Mississippi is the only state with such an amendment on the ballot this fall. He said people are gathering signatures in Montana, Florida and Ohio to try to put nearly identical initiatives on ballots in 2012. He said similar efforts will start soon in Colorado, California, North Dakota, Nevada and Arkansas.
Mason said the Mississippi personhood amendment could lead to a challenge of Roe v. Wade.
“This will send shockwaves around this country, then around the world,” Mason said Thursday in Mississippi.
An attorney for proponents said his group needs to “celebrate this hard-won victory, but tomorrow we roll up our sleeves and return to work.
“Our opponents are discouraged, but not yet ultimately defeated,” said Stephen Crampton. “They will be back, spreading fear, confusion, and dire ‘sky-is-falling’ warnings about this simple amendment, and we must be ready to rebut their baseless charges and set the record straight.”
Pierce also said in his opinion that the Supreme Court couldn’t review a constitutional question that was not addressed by the Hinds County court.
Opponents were asking the court to rule on whether a proposal was constitutional before it had been adopted into the constitution, he said.
“As a matter of judicial policy, this court does not issue advisory opinions. Moreover, this court has found that advance opinions will not be issued to remove alleged clouds or uncertainties from proposed statutes or constitutional amendments,” Pierce said.
Justice Jim Kitchens, in a dissent joined by Justice Leslie King, said he believed the personhood proposal was an attempt to modify the Bill of Rights.
The politically powerful Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation sponsored the eminent domain initiative and gathered signatures to place it on the ballot. Supporters have said the amendment will protect property rights.
Opponents were led by businessman Leland Speed. He is director of the Mississippi Development Authority, but said he was acting as a private citizen, not as a public official, when he legally challenged the measure.
Speed said Mississippi does not have a history of an abuse of property rights or eminent domain for economic development. Speed said the amendment, if passed, would take power away from the courts to determine what is public use for economic development. He said it also would prevent the Legislature, the governor and local officials from getting together to pursue economic development for the state.
Justice Ann Lamar, writing for the majority in an identical 7-2 decision, said the court would not issue an improper advisory opinion. Lamar said the court also would not be rushed into deciding the constitutional merits.