State Leaders React to Roe Decision; Special Session Uncertain

24 Jun 2022, 5 p.m. ·

Governor Pete Ricketts discusses the Supreme Court decision Friday (Photo by Will Bauer, Nebraska Public Media News)
Gov. Pete Ricketts discusses the Supreme Court decision Friday (Photo by Will Bauer, Nebraska Public Media News)

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Nebraska state lawmakers alternately hailed and blasted Friday’s Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade. But the question of whether the Legislature would convene in special session to change Nebraska’s abortion laws remained unanswered.

Gov. Pete Ricketts, an abortion opponent, hailed Friday’s decision as upholding the Constitution.

“I believe that the court made the right decision. That there is no right – constitutional right – to an abortion written into the Constitution, and that these matters are properly handled at the state level, as the Constitution outlined. You know the Constitution says that if it’s a matter not written in the Constitution for the federal government, it’s left up to the states or the people,” Ricketts said.

Asked if he would call the Legislature into special session to change state law, which currently allows abortions up to 20 weeks after fertilization, Ricketts was noncommittal.

“I will work with the speaker (of the Legislature) with regard to what more we can do to protect preborn babies. If the speaker feels we can do that through a special session, we will be doing it through a special: session,” Ricketts said.

Sen. Mike Hilgers, speaker of the Legislature, could not be reached to say what he thinks. But in an emailed statement, Hilgers said “I anticipate that Nebraskans’ elected representatives in the Legislature will be in special session this summer to pass legislation to protect pre-born babies. I will work with Governor Ricketts on the timing of a special session. And, after reviewing the Supreme Court’s opinion in detail, I will work closely with the Governor and my legislative colleagues on the scope of such protections.”

In this year’s regular session, Hilgers supported legislation that would have made it a crime for doctors to perform any abortion, although they could have defended themselves by arguing it was necessary to save the life of their patient. The proposal fell two votes short of overcoming a filibuster against it.

This was the vote on cloture to end a filibuster against Sen. Joni Albrecht's abortion ban. Thirty three votes would have been needed.
This was the vote on cloture to end a filibuster against Sen. Joni Albrecht's abortion ban. Thirty three votes would have been needed.

Sen. Joni Albrecht introduced that bill, which would have triggered an abortion ban if the Supreme Court overturned Roe. Albrecht hailed Friday’s decision.

“It’s a victory. It’s a victory for the mothers, the unborn, and for our country. It was a answer to our prayers,” Albrecht said.

Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks, who helped lead the filibuster that stopped Albrecht’s legislation, blasted the Supreme Court’s decision.

“This is somber day. I am angry, I am sad. I’m mostly angry. I’m angry that my daughter no longer has the same rights that I have had,” Pansing Brooks said.

Albrecht said she wants the Legislature to meet in special session before its regular session in January.

“It’s in our hands. We’ve already talked about it. It was going to be a trigger bill. And there was too many unknowns at that time. But… I’m not willing to waste a moment of another life to be saved,” she said.

Sen. Steve Lathrop, chair of the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee which is charged with reviewing abortion legislation, says he thinks lawmakers should wait until there’s a new Legislature and new governor in January.

“This group (of current legislators) has already demonstrated that it will be difficult for them to secure 33 votes,” Lathrop said.

Lathrop was absent and didn’t vote when Albrecht’s proposal fell short. He said he did so because the proposal was a complete ban with an exception only for the life of the mother, and because it criminalized doctors. Lathrop said he doesn’t know how he would react to what might be proposed in a special session.

Albrecht acknowledged there would probably have to be changes to the bill she had introduced. Her motion to overcome the filibuster against it got 31 votes, but it needed 33.

“I think we do have some rewriting to do in the language from the trigger bill. And you know, behind the scenes we’ll figure out we that is to get to, I hope, more than 33 (votes). I hope it’s 43,” she said.

Any proposed changes are unlikely to sway determined opponents of abortion restrictions, like Sen. Adam Morfeld.

“I will remain strongly opposed to anything that hinders the ability of a woman to make medical decisions about their reproductive rights with their doctors, faith leaders or family if they choose,” Morfeld said.

And Morfeld predicted if there is special session, the vote will remain extremely close. In addition to Lathrop, Sen. Rich Pahls and Justin Wayne were absent and did not vote on Albrecht’s bill.

Pahls has since died, and Ricketts appointed Sen. Kathleen Kauth, who supported an abortion ban, to replace him. Wayne declined comment Friday on his position.

Pansing Brooks underscored the uncertainty about what the Legislature might do.

“There are a lot of people that have left the country and gone on trips and done all sorts of things. So I don’t know what’s going to happen,” she said.

One of those who’s left the country is Sen. Tom Brewer, a supporter of Albrecht’s bill. Brewer took off Friday for Ukraine, where he’ll help train soldiers on using a new sniper rifle. In an interview earlier this week, Brewer said he planned to return around Labor Day, but that could change.

“I’ll be somewhat at the mercy of whether or not we have a special session. Obviously if we do, then I need to fly back for that because that kind of comes with the job. But at this point I’m not sure what’s going to happen with that,” Brewer said.

Ricketts put no timeline on when he will decide on calling a special session. Thirty three senators also have the power to call one themselves, but that’s never happened in the history of the Unicameral.