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Archive for Thursday, August 16, 2007

Judge to rule Friday whether to step aside in Tiller abortion case

August 16, 2007

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— An anti-abortion judge presiding over the case against one of the nation's best-known abortion providers plans to announce Friday whether he will recuse himself.

Attorneys for Dr. George Tiller filed a motion Monday asking Sedgwick County District Judge Anthony Powell to remove himself from the case.

Powell told The Associated Press on Wednesday that he has not yet made a decision on the request, but he said he will issue a public ruling in court at 9:30 a.m. Friday. The judge made his comments after a five-minute, closed-door meeting with attorneys in the case.

Tiller's attorneys have declined to elaborate on the reason for their request for a new judge, saying Kansas law prohibits them from stating the grounds in the initial motion.

Kansas Attorney General Paul Morrison said it's not uncommon for a judge to be asked to remove himself from a case.

As for Powell's involvement, Morrison said his office, which is prosecuting the case, "won't be taking a position on it."

Morrison, an abortion-rights Democrat, charged Tiller in June with 19 misdemeanors for allegedly failing to get an independent second opinion on some late-term abortions. Tiller maintains his innocence, and his attorneys are challenging the constitutionality of the Kansas statute.

Powell previously served in the Kansas House and was among the Legislature's most vocal abortion foes. Shortly after the enactment of a 1998 law restricting late-term abortions, he accused Tiller of breaking it.

As a legislator, Powell voted regularly for new restrictions. In a 1997 committee debate on banning a procedure critics call "partial-birth" abortion, Powell said, "Many of us regard abortion as the slaughter of the innocents."

Three months after the law's enactment, anti-abortion legislators accused Tiller of performing prohibited late-term abortions - something he denied. Powell participated in a news conference outside Tiller's clinic and said the doctor was "defying legal and moral authority."

The state board that regulates doctors looked into the allegations but found no wrongdoing.

The 1998 law under which Tiller is charged applies after the 21st week of pregnancy and when a fetus can survive outside the womb. Two independent doctors must conclude that if the pregnancy continues, the woman or girl could die or face "substantial and irreversible" harm to a "major bodily function," a phrase interpreted to include mental health.

Morrison continues to face criticism from abortion opponents, who argue that he has filed a relatively weak case against Tiller. They contend Tiller should be prosecuted for using "trivial" medical reasons, such as a patient's anxiety or "single episode" depression, to justify abortions of viable fetuses.

Kansans for Life is circulating petitions to force Sedgwick County to convene a grand jury to investigate that issue.

Morrison said in an interview in Junction City on Wednesday that once two doctors reach their conclusion, they have complied with Kansas law - however questionable their justifications for the abortions are.

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