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Lightning strike forces delay in abortion clinic hearing

Jackson Women's Health Organization owner Diane Derzis talks with local and national reporters outside federal court.

Jackson Women’s Health Organization owner Diane Derzis talks with local and national reporters outside federal court.

JACKSON — Saying a Sunday lightning strike disabled its lawyers’ computers, the state of Mississippi requested and was granted an extra day to ask the full 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to reconsider a decision that struck down a law that would have closed Mississippi’s only abortion clinic.

A court clerk approved the extension yesterday, giving the state until today to file for a rehearing.

It’s the first written confirmation that Mississippi will ask all 15 circuit judges to rehear the case. A majority of the judges must agree.

Last month, in a 2-1 decision, a three-judge panel of the court ruled the 2012 law unconstitutional because it would have closed the Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the state’s only abortion clinic.

The law required clinic physicians to obtain admitting privileges at a local hospital. The clinic’s physicians applied for privileges but were unable to get them.

Attorneys for the state had argued that if the clinic closed, women could get abortions in other states.

The appeals panel ruled that a U.S. Supreme Court decision in 1973 established a constitutional right to abortion. The panel said Mississippi may not shift its obligation for established constitutional rights of its citizens to another state.

In a motion filed yesterday seeking more time, Paul Barnes of the attorney general’s office wrote that lightning damaged the computer network at the office, including file servers, email and Internet access, at about 5:45 p.m. Sunday. The Jackson area was experiencing heavy rain at the time.

The attorney general’s own staff wasn’t able to fix the damage Monday, and outside consultants were brought in. They didn’t restore the system until late Monday or early yesterday.

“These unforeseen technical difficulties, which were beyond the control of undersigned counsel, have greatly hampered the ability of appellants to complete and file the petition,” Barnes wrote. He wrote that opposing lawyers for the abortion clinic agreed to the one-day deadline extension that the court granted.

Mississippi’s appeal will be closely watched. The ruling from the conservative 5th Circuit was narrowly crafted to Mississippi, but could have implications elsewhere. Ten other states have similar laws, which have forced a growing number of clinics to close.

The Mississippi clinic remains open, using out-of-state physicians who travel to Mississippi several times a month to perform abortions.


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