U.S. appeals court upholds Tennessee anti-abortion vote

(Reuters) - A federal appeals court on Tuesday upheld the validity of a 2014 Tennessee ballot measure that removed the right to an abortion from the state constitution.

By a 3-0 vote, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected a challenge by eight voters to how the state counted ballots in the election, one of Tennessee’s costliest. The measure, known as Amendment 1, won 53 percent of the vote.

Tuesday’s decision by the Cincinnati-based appeals court overturned a April 2016 lower court ruling ordering a recount. That ruling had been put on hold pending the appeal.

The decision may also encourage the adoption in Tennessee of tighter abortion restrictions, such as a 48-hour waiting period that Republican Governor Bill Haslam signed into law in 2015.

Republicans have big majorities in both houses of Tennessee’s legislature.

Bill Harbison, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, in a statement said his clients were weighing their options.

“We continue to believe in the bedrock principle of one person, one vote, and believe that the state’s ratification scheme coupled with certain actors’ unprecedented effort to manipulate a result violated that principle,” Harbison said.

Circuit Judge David McKeague said opponents of Amendment 1 failed to show how Tennessee harmed their due process and equal protection rights, or diluted their votes relative to votes of abortion opponents.

“This is not the ‘exceptional case’ that warrants federal intervention in a lawful state election process,” McKeague wrote.

“Although the subject of abortion rights will continue to be controversial in Tennessee and across our nation, it is time for uncertainty surrounding the people’s 2014 approval and ratification of Amendment 1 to be put to rest,” he added.

Amendment 1 said, “Nothing in this Constitution secures or protects a right to abortion or requires the funding of an abortion.” It also said elected officials may “enact, amend, or repeal statutes regarding abortion.”

The office of Tennessee Republican Attorney General Herbert Slatery said it was gratified that the court found the vote-counting “reasonable and true to the meaning of the Tennessee Constitution.”

In ordering a recount, then-Chief Judge Kevin Sharp of the federal court in Nashville called Tennessee’s vote-counting “fundamentally unfair.” He also said it did not comply with a state constitutional provision that it take into account the number of votes cast for governor.

McKeague was appointed to the appeals court by President George W. Bush. The other panel members, Richard Suhrheinrich and Ronald Gilman, were appointed by Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, respectively.

The case is George et al v Hargett et al, 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, No. 16-5563.

Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; editing by Leslie Adler