Lawmaker shows his lack of courage

Lawmaker shows his lack of courage By Editorial Last week, the South Dakota Legislature began to wrestle with what easily could be called the ultimate in human rights legislation.

Rep. Matt McCaulley, R-Sioux Falls, is the chief sponsor of a bill that outlaws most abortions in the state.

Supporters of the measure hope the legislation will prompt the U.S. Supreme Court to finally decide when life begins. The bill proclaims that life starts at conception.

Opponents argued last week that the bill is only a political and moral statement. They said it will be challenged in court, and South Dakota will lose.

Opposing House members reminded their colleagues that South Dakota has lost twice when abortion restrictions were taken to court in recent years.

District 17 Rep. B.J. Nesselhuf said at Saturday's cracker barrel legislative meeting in Vermillion that the cost of another legal challenge could be $1 million, and half of that would go to pay the fees for prevailing lawyers representing Planned Parenthood and the American Civil Liberties Union.

Nesselhuf attempted unsuccessfully to add $1 million of funding to the bill. Those who are serious about the issue should also be willing to spend the money it will take to defend a lawsuit, he said.

The Vermillion legislator has either learned very little about lawmaking during the past four years, or he is being disingenuous in his approach to this bill.

It's clear that the $1 million allocation was simply a ploy to try to kill the measure. The Legislature has addressed complex, controversial issues for decades. Constituents count on the people they elect to have the guts, the courage, to deal with controversy without unfurling a safety net of taxpayer dollars before addressing complicated questions.

Robert E. Regier, executive director of the South Dakota Family Policy Council in Sioux Falls, brings up an interesting bit of history regarding the debates between Stephen Douglas and Abraham Lincoln while discussing McCaulley's bill.

After the Supreme Court ruled in Dred Scott that it was legal for white people to actually own black people, Douglas said that "under the constitution, a senator has no right to interfere with the decision of judicial tribunals � the Dred Scott decision was pronounced by the highest tribunal on Earth. From that decision there is no appeal this side of Heaven."

Lincoln asserted that a court ruling is not "a thus saith the Lord." He pointed out that the Dred Scott ruling did not excuse the other two branches of government from their duty to defend the unalienable rights of African-Americans.

In his 1861 inaugural address, Lincoln declared that "if the policy of the government ? is to be irrevocably fixed by decisions of the Supreme Court ? the people will have ceased to be their own rulers."

The South Dakota legislators swore an oath to support the constitutions of the state and federal governments, Regier notes, not the judicial branch's misinterpretations of them. Hence, the decision to forge ahead with the abortion ban.

When similar legislation went before the South Carolina House Judiciary Committee three years ago, Rep. Fletcher Smith, a black Democrat, was the lone "yes" vote. In response to those who opposed the abortion ban because they feared it was unconstitutional, he said, "If we African-Americans had taken that approach, Plessy v. Ferguson, (the 1896 Supreme Court ruling that upheld the racial concept of 'separate but equal'), would never have been overturned."

Thankfully, civil rights leaders did challenge Plessy. And 60 years later, the court reversed its flawed reasoning on the rights of America's African citizens, beginning with Brown v. Board of Education.

Nesselhuf is correct to be concerned about Supreme Court precedents. But his reasoning stopped being, well, reasonable, when it became apparent that he believes elected officials are powerless in the court of judicial opinion.

Just this week, supporters of Amendment E, an anti-corporate farming law approved by South Dakota voters in 1998 but rejected by a federal judge and appeals court, have asked the U.S. Supreme Court to hear their case.

They have pressed forward to argue hopefully have their day before the highest court in the land.

If we can muster the courage to bring an anti-corporate farming law's appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, surely we can see fit to question the Roe vs. Wade decision and ask the court to recognize that all humans are endowed with an unalienable right to life.

As far as that $1 million Nesselhuf is afraid of spending? That's what it costs to pave approximately a mile of highway in South Dakota.

It's a negligible amount.

The Vermillion Plain Talk editorials reflect the opinion of Plain Talk editor David Lias. You may contact him at

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