- Associated Press - Friday, June 24, 2016

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) - North Dakota spent $491,016 in legal costs defending an ill-fated law passed by the state’s Republican-led Legislature three years ago that attempted to ban abortions when a fetal heartbeat is detected, records obtained by The Associated Press show.

The sum was finalized this week and includes billing by state-contracted attorneys and expert witnesses, as well as a $245,000 settlement paid in April to lawyers representing the state’s lone abortion clinic in Fargo. The figure does not include staff time dedicated from the state Attorney General’s office.

House Majority Leader Al Carlson of Fargo and his Republican Senate counterpart, Rich Wardner of Dickinson, defended the final tally on Friday.

“It was worth every cent for those of us who believe in life,” Wardner said of the law, which never took effect but would have banned abortions as early as six weeks of pregnancy - before some women know they are pregnant.

Senate Democratic Minority Leader Mac Schneider of Grand Forks called money spent defending the state’s abortion measures “a colossal backfire at the height of fiscal irresponsibility.”

Lawyers for the Red River Women’s Clinic in Fargo wanted the state to pay for litigation costs after the U.S. Supreme Court in January rejected the state’s appeal of a lower court ruling that the 2013 fetal heartbeat law was unconstitutional.

Abortion-rights supporters said it was the strictest anti-abortion measure in the country and an attempt to shutter the Fargo clinic. Republican Gov. Jack Dalrymple called the law “a legitimate attempt by a state Legislature to discover the boundaries of Roe v. Wade.”

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 the fetal heartbeat bill and other anti-abortion measures in 2013 with little debate and with the overwhelming support of Republicans, who wield supermajority control in the Legislature.

At the time, lawmakers also set aside $400,000 to defend lawsuits arising from the abortion laws, and the Legislature added another $400,000 last year.

Billing records obtained by the AP through an open records request show the state also has spent $79,932 defending anti-abortion legislation dating back to 2011.

Only two measures have gone into effect since 2011: One that prohibits women from having an abortion because a fetus has a genetic defect, such as Down syndrome, and one that requires a doctor who performs abortions to be a physician with hospital-admitting privileges. The clinic did not challenge the genetic defect measure, saying those are never performed. And the clinic’s doctors obtained admitting privileges at a local hospital.

A final payment of about $67,581 to settle the fetal heartbeat law was approved Monday by North Dakota’s Emergency Commission, a panel that includes the governor and considers spending requests and money transfers when the Legislature is not in session.

“That’s it,” Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem said. “We’re done paying bills.”

Schneider, a lawyer, argues that the money could be better put to use now that the state is forced to cut budgets to make up for a more than $1 billion budget shortfall due to a drop in oil drilling and depressed crude prices, he said.

“It has been far too easy for the Republican Legislature to litigate unconstitutional laws with other people’s money,” he said. “This was a flagrantly awful outcome for North Dakota taxpayers.”

Red River Women’s Clinic Director Tammi Kromenaker said that the clinic told the Legislature during debates over abortion measures that there would be legal action.

“I did tell them that we would litigate this and there will be a cost to taxpayers,” she said. “But they were flush with money and felt money was no object.”

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