Pumping the brakes: Ohio House Speaker dismisses effort to limit court jurisdiction on Issue 1

“This is Schoolhouse Rock type stuff,” he said of the idea.

By: - November 15, 2023 5:00 am

COLUMBUS, Ohio — MAY 24: House Speaker Rep. Jason Stephens, R-Kitts Hill, holds the gavel during the Ohio House session, May 24, 2023, at the Statehouse in Columbus, Ohio. (Photo by Graham Stokes for Ohio Capital Journal. Republish photo only with original story.)

Ohio House Speaker Jason Stephens threw cold water on a bid to thwart the recent abortion rights amendment Issue 1. Instead of attempting to deny the courts’ jurisdiction or rushing to the ballot with a repeal effort, Stephens argued lawmakers should focus on maternal and early childhood care.

Despite the speaker’s measured response, Democrats remain wary — recalling Republicans’ last-minute maneuvering to get a related issue on the ballot in August.

School House Rock

Several lawmakers have publicly refused to take Issue 1’s passage as a final answer. Perhaps none so vehemently as state Rep. Jennifer Gross, R-West Chester. She’s pursuing a measure that would explicitly deny court jurisdiction over Issue 1 and make it an impeachable offense for any judge that defied the law.

Ironically, her apparent justification for nullifying the courts’ authority comes from a court decision. In a joint press release, Ohio Value Voters and Faith2Action argue the decision overturning Roe put “elected representatives” in charge. And so, the argument goes, lawmakers have the authority to withhold court jurisdiction.

Speaker Stephens dismissed that idea out of hand.

“This is Schoolhouse Rock type stuff,” Stephens said. “We need to make sure that we have the three branches of government and the Constitution is what we abide by.”

Contrary to Gross, Stephens said the courts will be in charge of figuring out how to apply the reproductive rights amendment. Pressed on what role lawmakers should play, he emphasized newborn and maternal health policy.

But more than anything Stephens seems intent on lowering the volume in what has been a raucous debate. He repeatedly stressed the importance of having a “conversation” about what he and other abortion opponents are for rather than just what they’re against.

“These are our people. These are our family members. These are people we care about,” Stephens said. “These are, whether it’s the moms, the babies, everybody — these families are extremely important, and yelling doesn’t accomplish that goal. Having conversations is what accomplishes that goal, and we’ll let the courts figure out the constitutional issues.”

Back to the ballot?

On election night, Senate President Matt Huffman argued Issue 1’s passage is just the prelude to an ongoing repeal effort. But if abortion opponents were eyeing the 2024 primary, Stephens sought to quash those ideas.

“Oh, no. No,” he said of the idea. “We’ve had a couple of votes on that already.”

“Putting that on the ballot after having two votes so quickly,” he added, “I think we all know what the result would be.”

Still, he didn’t entirely rule out revisiting the policy in the future. He drew an analogy to redistricting. Organizers put an amendment on the ballot in 2015 and then proposed more changes in 2018. Another measure establishing an independent redistricting commission is gather signatures for 2024’s ballot.

“Is that undermining the will of voters from 10 years ago? No, it’s the political process,” he said.

“Those of us who voted against Issue 1 are not changing what we believe,” Stephens said. But Tuesday’s election forces them to reconsider their approach and how to “communicate our position.” Posing the same constitutional question six months or a year later, Stephens argued, isn’t the answer.

COLUMBUS, Ohio — MAY 10: State Rep. Allison Russo, D-Upper Arlington, joined by other House Democrats, holds signs against SJR 2 on the House floor after the passage of SJR 2 during the Ohio House session, May 10, 2023, at the Statehouse in Columbus, Ohio. (Photo by Graham Stokes for Ohio Capital Journal)

Democrats cautious

While Stephens appears ready to turn the page, Minority Leader Allison Russo is keeping her guard up.

“We’ve seen the extremists in that caucus gain power and successfully put things forward,” she argued. “I mean, I will remind you how we got the August special election — it started as a, ‘It’s not going to happen,’ and they got loud enough, and it did.”

In August, Ohio voters considered a Republican-backed proposal to raise the passage threshold to 60% for all future constitutional amendments. The proposal was a transparent effort to move the goalposts before November’s reproductive rights amendment went before voters.

The supermajority proposal died — repeatedly — only to be resuscitated and prodded across the finish line at the eleventh hour. In so doing, conservative lawmakers took a legally dubious route to reinstate an August election they’d voted to eliminate just a few months prior.

Voters rejected that proposal by double digits.

Given that track record, Russo wasn’t willing to assume the reproductive rights debate is going to cool anytime soon. Speaking about Gross’s measure, she quipped, “You know, there’s a lot of talk around here about the need for civics education. I’m often astounded that probably the first place we should start is here in the General Assembly.”

Follow OCJ Reporter Nick Evans on Twitter.

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Nick Evans
Nick Evans

Nick Evans has spent the past seven years reporting for NPR member stations in Florida and Ohio. He got his start in Tallahassee, covering issues like redistricting, same sex marriage and medical marijuana. Since arriving in Columbus in 2018, he has covered everything from city council to football. His work on Ohio politics and local policing have been featured numerous times on NPR.

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