Missouri AG’s lawsuit against St. Louis abortion access fund sent back to state court

Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt and national abortion-rights groups had opposed the city’s decision to move the case to federal court

By: - September 19, 2022 11:38 am

The City of St. Louis’ decision to move Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt's lawsuit against its use of federal relief dollars to support abortion access to federal court had national abortion rights groups alarmed (Rebecca Rivas/Missouri Independent).

Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt’s lawsuit against St. Louis’ use of federal funds to support abortion access will be sent back to the state courts to decide — a move both Schmitt and national abortion-rights groups had hoped for.

On Monday, U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri Judge Audrey Fleissig sent the case back to the St. Louis Circuit Court where it was originally filed by Schmitt in July.

The City of St. Louis moved the case to federal court later that month. The move drew immediate opposition from Schmitt, but it also alarmed abortion-rights advocates who feared a loss in federal court would have ramifications across the country that could curtail abortion access and set up a faster path to the U.S. Supreme Court.

In Fleissig’s order, she wrote that the case “arises solely under state law,” and granted Schmitt’s motion to send the case back to state court.

Spokesmen for Schmitt and St. Louis Mayor Tishaura Jones declined to comment on Fleissig’s order.

In its filings in federal court, the city of St. Louis had argued that the questions at the center of the case were ultimately a federal issue. 

In July, Jones signed into law Board Bill 61, which established the Reproductive Equity Fund. Funded with federal American Rescue Plan Act dollars, the fund will allocate $1 million to organizations providing logistical support, like to cover costs of travel or childcare, for those accessing abortions out-of-state. 

In June, nearly all abortions in Missouri became illegal the day Roe v. Wade was overturned and a trigger law went into effect.

Applications for the fund opened last month, and an additional $500,000 will be issued to organizations bolstering access to reproductive health care, like doulas and lactation support. Another $250,000 was allocated to cover administrative costs.

Schmitt, a Republican who is also running for U.S. Senate, sued to block the new law hours after it was signed. He argued it violated state laws prohibiting public funds, employees and facilities from being used to assist or encourage access to abortions and that the new fund “fails to account for the impact on unborn children.”

However, the city argued it had the authority to allocate the federal funds in such a manner, and that the state laws Schmitt cited violate the supremacy clause of the U.S. Constitution by frustrating Congress’ intent that local governments be able to spend relief dollars in ways that best suit their community’s needs.

In Monday’s order, Fleissig wrote that the state’s lawsuit “does not depend on any federal issue, let alone a sufficiently substantial one,” and that the origin of the funds is irrelevant to the state’s lawsuit.

Schmitt hasn’t alleged that the city violated federal restrictions on the use of the American Rescue Plan Act dollars, Fleissig wrote, and the city’s receipt of the funds is unaffected by the outcome of the lawsuit.

The city had moved for Schmitt’s lawsuit to be dismissed and had filed a counterclaim of its own, asking the court to invalidate the state laws Schmitt sued under. Fleissig ordered pending motions to be resolved by the state court.

In a statement Tuesday, Mallory Schwarz, executive director of Pro-Choice Missouri, which helped craft the recently-enacted St. Louis law, said the organization “believes that logistical support for abortion is legal under current statute.”

“In the post-Roe world, all Missourians seeking abortions are forced to flee their home state to access essential healthcare across state lines,” Schwarz said, “and we are grateful for the support and partnership of local leaders in working collaboratively to ensure Missourian’s access to abortion care.”

This story has been updated since it was initially published.

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Tessa Weinberg
Tessa Weinberg

Tessa Weinberg covered education, health care and the legislature with the Missouri Independent. She previously covered the Missouri statehouse for The Kansas City Star and The Columbia Missourian, where her reporting into social media use by the governor prompted an investigation by the Attorney General’s office. She also covered state government in Texas for The Fort Worth Star-Telegram.