Missouri attorney general could gain power over abortion law - KMOV.com

Missouri attorney general could gain power over abortion law

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Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley speaks at a news conference in St. Louis. (AP Photo/Jim Salter File) Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley speaks at a news conference in St. Louis. (AP Photo/Jim Salter File)

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) — Some GOP lawmakers who are working to tighten Missouri's abortion regulations also hope to give the state attorney general authority to prosecute violations of abortion laws.

Abortion opponents say the move is needed because they fear local prosecutors who support abortion rights won't prosecute violations as vigorously as they should, but the prosecutors are balking at the potential power grab.

The current attorney general, Republican Josh Hawley, opposes abortion. His office did not return calls from the Associated Press seeking comment.

Lawmakers are addressing abortion during a special session on the issue called by Republican Gov. Eric Greitens, an abortion opponent. The House and Senate have passed different legislation.

Sen. Andrew Koenig, a Republican of the St. Louis suburb of Manchester and an abortion opponent, has led the move toward more authority for the attorney general. Koenig said the issue of abortion is politically charged and that the aim of his bill is to have a backup in case local prosecutors opt against prosecuting potential violations.

Currently, a St. Louis Planned Parenthood clinic is the only licensed abortion facility in the state, and the city prosecutor is former Democratic state lawmaker Kim Gardner, who previously served in the state House with Koenig. Gardner in 2014 voted against requiring women to wait 72 hours before getting an abortion, one of the state's most high-profile recent changes to abortion law.

"I thought it was a good idea to have another set of eyes looking at things to make sure that our laws are being enforced," Koenig said Thursday.

Gardner, who took office in January, said Thursday that her political views won't influence her decisions about enforcing laws, and added that's "not proper."

Democratic Sen. Jill Schupp, a suburban St. Louis lawmaker from Creve Coeur, in a recent interview with The Associated Press said giving more authority to the attorney general could mean more politics in courtrooms under Hawley. Several high-profile Republicans in an April letter encouraged Hawley to run for the U.S. Senate next year, and USA Today reported that top Missouri GOP donor Sam Fox on Tuesday wrote a letter urging other donors to push Hawley to run. Hawley has not said whether he plans to join the race.

"He's going to turn some case that can be handled on a local basis within a community into his case," said Schupp, who supports abortion rights. "I think the only reason is to make headlines or because he doesn't believe that local prosecutors are pursuing whatever issues there are around a woman's access to abortion."

The effort also spurred opposition from the Missouri Association of Prosecuting Attorneys. Board member and St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Bob McCulloch said he has been fighting other legislative attempts to give prosecution authority to the attorney general for decades.

McCulloch said voters pick local prosecutors and entrust them with making decisions on whether to file charges, and he slammed lawmaker efforts to remove that authority because of distrust of current elected prosecutors.

Currently, the Missouri attorney general can only prosecute certain crimes involving violations of the state's consumer-protection law and some gambling laws. Lawmakers earlier this year passed a right-to-work bill banning mandatory union fees that also gave the attorney general power to enforce the law, which is slated to take effect in August.

Attorneys general in states such as Delaware, Rhode Island and Alaska have the power to prosecute any criminal case, according to National Association of Attorneys General spokeswoman Marjorie Tharp.

Missouri senators took a different approach than their House counterparts. They heard complaints from prosecutors and, after hours of closed-door, bipartisan negotiations, passed a watered-down version of the legislation that would grant prosecutorial authority to the attorney general only if local prosecutors didn't act.

A House committee on Monday undid that compromise, and the House passed a version Tuesday that gives the attorney general the broader authority.

Because of changes, the bill now heads back to the Senate for review. It's unclear when senators will return to the Capitol to consider the legislation, but lawmakers face an August deadline to finish the special session.

Greitens said Thursday that he supports the version giving the attorney general broader authority.

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