Colorado Supreme Court Rules Against Planned Parenthood Defunding

"This court case was always just a sideshow from extremists with a harmful agenda."

Activists gather to support Planned Parenthood during the Planned Parenthood Capitol Takeover on March 1, 2017 in D.C. Lauryn Gutierrez / Rewire

The Colorado Supreme Court ruled this week that the state’s constitutional ban on the direct or indirect use of taxpayer dollars for abortion doesn’t preclude Colorado from providing funds to Planned Parenthood for its non-abortion health care services, like breast cancer screenings.

In affirming a lower court decision, Colorado Supreme Court Chief Justice Nancy E. Rice rejected the argument that the “word ‘indirectly’ prohibits the State from paying organizations that offer abortion services—or entities closely affiliated with organizations that perform abortions—for any reason.”

Defunding Planned Parenthood “would lead to an absurd result,” wrote Rice, citing a lower court’s example that a state worker could be prohibited from donating money to an organization that performs abortions, simply because the worker was paid with taxpayer money.

“Today’s victory is a win for over 103,000 patients we care for every year, who trust us to provide them quality health care. This court case was always just a sideshow from extremists with a harmful agenda,” Vicki Cowart, President of Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains, said in a statement after the Monday ruling.

Former Colorado Department of Public Health And Environment Director Jane Norton brought the lawsuit to claim that Planned Parenthood’s state-funded services, such as those covered by Medicaid, subsidize abortions.

“We disagree,” Rice wrote in response to this position.

Norton, a former Colorado lieutenant governor, was represented by attorneys connected to the Alliance Defending Freedom, a national anti-abortion and anti-LGBTQ law firm that’s defending, at the U.S. Supreme Court, a Colorado baker who discriminated against a same-sex couple by refusing to bake their wedding cake. Norton’s lead lawyer is her husband Michael J. Norton, a former U.S. attorney who’s widely known for representing Christian right groups in court and at the Colorado capitol.

In his argument to the court, Michael Norton wrote that a state audit, conducted by the Colorado health department when Jane Norton led the agency in 1999, showed Planned Parenthood could not separate its abortion care from other health care services, such as cancer screenings and family planning.

“The Accounting Firm determined that Planned Parenthood Services Corporation performed induced abortions, that its purported separation from Planned Parenthood was a legal fiction, and that Planned Parenthood Services Corporation was essentially the alter ego of Planned Parenthood,” according to Norton’s brief.

ADF did not respond to a request for comment, but Norton, who left ADF in 2016 to run the Freedom Institute, while still taking ADF cases, released this statement in 2016 as the Planned Parenthood case wound its way to the Colorado Supreme Court:

“American taxpayer money should go to fund local community health centers, not to subsidize a scandal-ridden, billion-dollar abortion business like Planned Parenthood,” Norton said of the case in a 2016 ADF news release about the case. “This is especially true here in Colorado, where the voters adopted a state constitutional provision that expressly prohibits the direct or indirect funding of abortions.”

The case is spilling into Colorado’s gubernatorial race. State Attorney General Cynthia Coffman, who’s running for governor, once boasted that she worked with Jane Norton, when Norton directed the Colorado health department in 1999 to cut off state funds to Planned Parenthood.

In 2010, when Coffman was running for attorney general, a progressive blog in Colorado published a campaign video of Coffman, who was campaigning for Norton during her U.S. Senate run, touting her role in defunding Planned Parenthood.

“We went through the legal process, since I was Jane’s attorney, and we defunded Planned Parenthood in that case, because they were using public funds to subsidize abortion,” Coffman says in the video, which she has not challenged.

Coffman’s role in advising Norton to defund Planned Parenthood is cited in Norton’s lawsuit against Planned Parenthood to support Norton’s position that public funding of Planned Parenthood violates the state constitution.

Coffman is now waffling about her position on abortion, saying she wants it to be “rare” and “safe,” yet refusing to be called “pro-choice,” a label that could hurt her in the Republican primary.

Coffman’s office did not return an email seeking to know if she disagrees with the court decision and still thinks Planned Parenthood should be barred from receiving state funding, and, if so, how this squares with her position on abortion rights.

Norton last year worked briefly for the Department of Health and Human Services in the Trump administration, but was pushed out, according to Politico, for failing to communicate the department’s work effectively.