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Court Votes Not to Limit Funding of Abortions

November 21, 1986|PHILIP HAGER | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — The California Supreme Court, over dissents by both appointees of Gov. George Deukmejian, on Thursday rejected an attempt by the Legislature to severely limit state funding of abortions for indigent women.

The court, in a brief order, let stand a decision by the state Court of Appeal here in August requiring the state to continue to pay for abortions under the Medi-Cal program.

But Thursday's action came over objections from Justices Malcolm M. Lucas and Edward A. Panelli, the two Deukmejian appointees who voted to hear the case, and raised the prospect that the court may agree to reconsider the volatile issue after the Republican governor fills three impending vacancies on the court next year.

Deukmejian appointees will form a court majority after the governor names successors to Chief Justice Rose Elizabeth Bird and Justices Cruz Reynoso and Joseph R. Grodin, who were defeated in the fall election and leave office in January.

Four votes on the seven-member court are required to grant hearings and to issue decisions. When review is denied, the appellate decision is left intact.

An Annual Ritual

The court acted Thursday in what has become almost an annual ritual. For nine consecutive years, the Legislature has enacted restrictions that would effectively bar all but a few abortions under the Medi-Cal program. Each year, court actions have blocked the restrictions from taking effect--and about 90,000 women a year continue to receive state-funded abortions.

In 1981, the justices issued a landmark ruling saying that under the state Constitution, funds could not be denied for abortion so long as they were provided for prenatal care and childbirth.

That precedent, cited regularly since 1981 to strike down state restrictions on abortion funding, could be in jeopardy under a new court lineup. Last year, Lucas cast a single vote to hear the issue and now he has been joined by Panelli, the governor's most recent appointee.

Margaret Crosby, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California who represented a group challenging the Legislature's latest restrictions, praised the court's action but expressed uneasiness about future rulings.

"I certainly hope we won't see the issue reexamined just because there are new appointees to the court," she said. "Adhering to precedent is very important in the law--particularly as here, where the Legislature has attacked court authority. Years of legislative defiance should not be rewarded."

Deputy Atty. Gen. Ralph M. Johnson, who represented the state officials who were defendants in the case, declined comment.

In enacting the 1986 state budget, the Legislature set aside about $13 million for abortions in limited circumstances--to preserve the life of the mother, to terminate pregnancies from rape or incest, for unmarried teen-agers whose parents have been notified or when the unborn child is severely deformed. That is about one-third the amount of money actually being spent, according to the ACLU.

A suit was filed by ACLU attorneys contending that the restrictions were illegal and that 95% of the indigents seeking abortions would be denied assistance under the Legislature's plan.

The state Court of Appeal struck down the restrictions and ordered abortion payments to continue. The state officials defending the restrictions sought review from the state Supreme Court, contending that under the constitutional separation of powers courts had no authority to intrude on the Legislature's wide-ranging control of the budget process.

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