Court of Appeals looks at wording of abortion question


ANNAPOLIS -- The debate over the wording of the controversial abortion referendum question moved to the Court of Appeals yesterday, with the judges pressing the opponents' attorney to explain why he believes the ballot language should be rewritten.

The judges had no questions for Deputy Attorney General Ralph S. Tyler III, who argued that the attorney general's wording was a fair and accurate summary of the law, which would keep most abortions here legal. The language, he said, was the result of "careful wordsmithing" and does not need to be rewritten.

But almost as soon as Joseph A. Schwartz III, representing the Vote kNOw Coalition, took his place at the rostrum to begin his argument for new ballot language, the judges began peppering him with questions.

The judges asked Mr. Schwartz to cite any Maryland law to support his contention that the issues raised in the ballot question had to follow the same order as in the legislation. They asked why he thought the current sequence was misleading, and they noted that the state constitution does not require a particular order for addressing the issues.

Some abortion-rights supporters said they took the challenges to Mr. Schwartz as a sign the seven justices would rule against the coalition. But others cautioned that the tone of questions is not always a reliable forecast of the court's decision.

Both sides see the wording as critical. Even slight changes in language might be enough to sway some voters on Election Day, they believe.

A ruling could come as early as today. Final language must be sent to local election boards by Aug. 25 for inclusion on the Nov. 3 ballot.

Yesterday, Mr. Schwartz contended that the ballot language, limited because of space to 100 words, was "obtuse" and "misleading." He also said the question should follow the sequence of the law and begin with the issue of notice to parents of minors who want abortions, the first provision addressed in the legislation. Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr.'s language begins with words that he says summarize the general intent of the bill, to prohibit state interference in a woman's abortion decision.

Last week, an Anne Arundel Circuit Court judge ruled in favor of the Vote kNOw Coalition. The attorney general promptly appealed, setting the stage for yesterday's hearing.

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