Judge issues last-minute delay to Montana abortion laws hours after taking case

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Sept 30 (Reuters) - A Montana judge on Thursday issued a temporary, 11th-hour halt to enforcement of three state laws restricting abortion, a ruling issued just hours after he was assigned to preside over a Planned Parenthood legal challenge.

Yellowstone County District Judge Michael Moses said he was granting a temporary restraining order sought by Planned Parenthood one day before the restrictions were set to take effect on Friday because he needed more time to study the case.

Planned Parenthood had first asked for a preliminary injunction that could have barred imposition of the statutes until the lawsuit was resolved. The temporary restraining order lasts for 10 days.

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"The court cannot possibly make a decision as to the plaintiff's motion for a preliminary injunction without adequate time to review the entirety of the record," Moses wrote in a three-page written order. "This is a case of extreme constitutional importance."

Abortion is a deeply polarizing issue in the United States, with a majority of Democrats supporting abortion rights and a majority of Republicans opposing them.

The three bills signed into law in November by Montana Governor Greg Gianforte, a Republican, include a ban on abortion after 20 weeks of gestation, restrictions on the distribution of abortion-inducing drugs and a requirement that women be offered an ultrasound before terminating the pregnancy.

The U.S. Supreme Court on Sept. 1 allowed a Texas law restricting abortion to take effect even as litigation over its legality continues in lower courts. The U.S. Justice Department challenged it eight days later in federal court.

Moses said in his ruling, which was issued shortly before 6 p.m. (8 p.m. EDT) that he had been assigned the case less than 5 hours earlier. He took over from another judge recused himself earlier on Thursday at the request of attorneys for the state of Montana.

Moses, who was appointed to the bench in 2014 by then-Governor Steve Bullock, a Democrat, did not rule on the merits of the lawsuit.

Planned Parenthood, which argued in the lawsuit that the laws would make it much more difficult for women in Montana to access abortion, nevertheless welcomed the ruling.

"The state court’s decision to block these cruel and unnecessary laws is a victory for reproductive freedom in Montana," Alexis McGill Johnson, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, said in a written statement.

A spokeswoman for Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen, who is named as a defendant in the lawsuit, could not be reached for comment on Thursday evening.

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Reporting by Dan Whitcomb Editing by Robert Birsel

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