JEFFERSON CITY - In a case one Planned Parenthood executive called "bizarre, bizarre," the Missouri Supreme Court on Thursday heard oral arguments on an issue that has pit the state government against itself.
The state is suing both the Missouri Health Department and state Planned Parenthood chapters because the department continued to fund the family-planning organization in what the legislature says was a violation of an appropriations law.
The state attorney general's office is defending the Health Department in the lawsuit. But the state is suing the Health Department and Planned Parenthood through a private attorney hired by the attorney general's office under an agreement with the legislature.
"I guess the state has two heads in this case," said Justice Ronnie White who questioned whether the state could sue the state.
At issue is a 1999 family planning appropriations law that forbids state money from going to any organization that promotes abortion or that shares a name, facilities, expenses, employee wages or equipment with an abortion provider.
The General Assembly passed the appropriations bill into law last year in an attempt to stop state money from going to Planned Parenthood, said Jordan Cherrick, the attorney representing the state.
However, once passed, Maureen Dempsey, the director of the state Health Department, interpreted the law differently and continued to send state funding to Planned Parenthood.
"We have a situation here where the director of health is failing to abide by the plain language of an appropriations bill," Cherrick said.
Chuck Hatfield, the assistant attorney general representing the Health Department, argued that because the appropriations law is so specific, it is unconstitutional.
Hatfield said if the court rules on behalf of the state, "it will set a dangerous precedent for Missouri state government, allowing the legislature to circumvent the state constitution."
This past November, Cole County Circuit Court Judge Byron Kinder ruled that, based on the then-newly passed appropriations law, the state could no longer fund Planned Parenthood. He also ordered the organization to repay the money it had received after the appropriations law was passed. This amounted to about $125,000, Hatfield said.
Almost one year later, the three parties took their case two blocks away to the state Supreme Court building.
But during Thursday's hearing, the court seemed more concerned with the unusual nature of a case in government is suing itself.
In the case, the attorney general's office provided the Health Department's attorney and hired an outside attorney to represent the state. Cherrick said the decision to hire outside counsel to defend the legislature's law was based on political ties between Attorney General Jay Nixon and Planned Parenthood.
"The attorney general, in this case, acted in an exemplary fashion," Cherrick said. "He recognized a conflict of interest."
Because both attorneys are being funded through the state, throughout the hearing, justices pressed Cherrick and Hatfield about how much they were being paid. However, both lawyers said they didn't know their exact salaries.
"How can the state sue itself, and who's paying for it," said Paula Gianino, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Region. "The taxpayers are paying for it."
Planned Parenthood executives said the General Assembly is using the appropriations law to regulate abortions in the state. But, they said, the family-planning services they provide reduce the need for abortions.
"We are caught in a fight over abortion that's being played out in the legislature, which is truly unfortunate," said Peter Brownlie, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of Kansas and Mid-Missouri.
The court is expected hand down a decision on the case within a month.