- Associated Press - Monday, February 29, 2016

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) - North Dakota’s legal war chest to defend lawsuits arising from a spate of anti-abortion laws passed three years ago is under threat of being drained.

Lawyers representing North Dakota’s lone abortion clinic will seek litigation costs from the state after the U.S. Supreme Court’s refusal last month to review lower court rulings overturning the state’s ban on abortion at six weeks of pregnancy, the clinic’s director said Monday.

“We will be filing for costs,” the director of Red River Women’s Clinic in Fargo, Tammi Kromenaker, told The Associated Press. “When it will be and how much it will be, we don’t know that as of yet.”

The high court in January rejected the state’s appeal of a lower court decision that struck down the 2013 fetal heartbeat law as unconstitutional. The law never took effect, and abortion-rights supporters said it was the strictest anti-abortion measure in the country.

Republican Gov. Jack Dalrymple has called the law “a legitimate attempt by a state Legislature to discover the boundaries of Roe v. Wade.” But opponents called it an attempt to shutter the clinic that is backed in its legal fight by the New York-based Center for Reproductive Rights.

Fueled by the unprecedented oil bonanza in the western part of the state, North Dakota was uniquely positioned to undertake an expensive legal fight when it passed several anti-abortion measures in 2013 with little debate and with the overwhelming support of its Republican-led Legislature.

North Dakota lawmakers at the time also set aside $400,000 to defend lawsuits arising from the abortion laws, and the Legislature added another $400,000 last year. Records obtained by the AP show the state had used $320,029 to defend the abortion laws through January, most of which was spent on the fetal heartbeat measure.

Under federal law, attorneys in federal civil rights cases can petition a court to award fees and costs they accrue while fighting a case if a court decides in their favor. The clinic’s lawyers have until March 25 to request attorney fees in the case.

Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem said the state “likely” is obligated by law to pay them.

“If we do, we will scrutinize them very carefully,” said Stenehjem, who now is a candidate for governor.

Rep. Kathy Hawken, a Republican from Fargo who supports legal abortion, said the state’s new abortion laws were doomed from the start and a waste of taxpayers’ money. She was among a bipartisan group of 10 lawmakers who urged Dalrymple to veto them.

“I think I represented the majority of my district on this issue,” she said. “It was extreme and only served a purpose for a certain segment of people that think they know how every other person should live.”

Hawken said money used to defend the lawsuits could be better put to use now that the state is forced to make cuts to make up for a more than $1 billion budget shortfall due to a drop in oil drilling and depressed crude prices.

“This clearly was not the smartest thing we’ve ever done,” Hawken said of the anti-abortion measures and the funding set aside to defend them. “We could have used that money for a lot of other things now.”

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