JEFFERSON CITY -- The Missouri Supreme Court heard arguments Wednesday in a case regarding an effort to put Missouri’s new abortion law on a statewide ballot. 

The law seeks to ban most abortions after eight weeks of pregnancy. 

The arguments come as Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft is accused of using an unconstitutional set of laws to prevent a ballot initiative last year. Ashcroft gave opponents of the state’s abortion law only two weeks to collect 100,000 signatures. 

Missouri law says residents can collect signatures and trigger a public vote before a law can take effect. Petitions must be submitted to the secretary of state's office 90 days after the end of the legislative session during which the law passed.

Jason Lewis, who argued on behalf of Attorney General Eric Schmitt, represented Ashcroft and said the case “arose out of a unique confluence of events not likely to recur.” He said the statutes challenged are facially constitutional. 

“There is again, no evidence in this record, that these statutes did significantly impede in a way to prevent these plaintiffs or any other plaintiffs from seeking a referendum on legislation,” Lewis said. 

Jessie Steffan, representing the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Missouri, said the statutes are unconstitutional because they give the General Assembly the right to delay, and therefore interfere with the right of referendum. 

“Under this Court's precedent, a statute that interferes with or impedes the right of referendum must be held unconstitutional. And what could interfere more than taking half of the time allotted for signature collection?” Steffan said. 

Steffan said they are not trying to relitigate House Bill 126. Instead, she said it is a declaratory judgment action, since there is a high probability that the ACLU will want to circulate a referendum petition again at some point in the future. 

According to the Associated Press, in a ruling in December, Cole County Circuit Judge Jon Beetem found that Ashcroft should have given the ACLU of Missouri and other groups more time to circulate their proposed ballot initiative.

Beetem said the law granting Ashcroft the power to “derail” signature gathering is in conflict with the constitution, which gives citizens the opportunity to overturn laws, according to the Associated Press. 

The Attorney General’s Office argued that current deadlines are needed to guardrail the initiative petition process. 

The St. Louis Post Dispatch reports that the decision could affect state law on how Missouri citizens can propose changes to the state constitution moving forward.

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