Topeka An extraordinary legal fight over patients' medical records has prompted the Kansas Supreme Court to prevent a key witness from appearing in a criminal case against an abortion clinic.
In an added twist, the witness is a lower court judge who once supervised prosecutor Phill Kline's investigation of the clinic, operated by Planned Parenthood in suburban Kansas City. Also, the state's attorney general has sided with the clinic in its records dispute against Kline.
The dispute threatens to delay Kline's prosecution of the clinic on 107 criminal charges, including falsifying records and performing illegal late-term abortions. A hearing is scheduled for May 27 and 28 to determine whether the case goes to trial in Johnson County, but the clinic hopes to delay the case until the Supreme Court settles questions about the records.
Even before Kline, the Johnson County district attorney, filed charges against Comprehensive Health in Overland Park, the clinic asked the Supreme Court to intervene. It hopes to force him to return edited copies of records from 29 patients' files, which are key evidence in his case.
Meanwhile, Attorney General Steve Six has a separate case pending with the high court against the judge who is Kline's witness.
Recently unsealed documents show that in April, the judge notified the Supreme Court that Kline had subpoenaed him, ordering him to produce documents - including medical records in his possession. Within minutes, a deputy attorney general sought an order blocking the subpoena, and the court granted it the following day.
Kline, an anti-abortion Republican, is frustrated with the potential delay in his criminal case. Fellow abortion opponents believe the attorney general's office is working to protect the clinic from prosecution because of abortion rights advocates' support in previous political campaigns.
"It's an obstruction of justice at every level," said Troy Newman, president of the anti-abortion group Operation Rescue.
But attorney general spokeswoman Ashley Anstaett said Six wants to allow the Supreme Court to settle the question of who ought to have patients' records and to protect the documents from being circulated more widely than they have been. Planned Parenthood's attorneys contend Kline's zeal for a "ridiculous" prosecution has forced them to take unusual steps to fight him.
"How much taxpayer money has he wasted in this unnecessary effort?" said Pedro Irigonegaray, a Topeka attorney representing the clinic. "The reason we have been successful from the beginning is not because of our brilliance but because the law is on our side."
Both Planned Parenthood's case and Six's lawsuit against the judge were filed directly with the Supreme Court last year, under seal. The high court unsealed both earlier this month, making hundreds of pages of documents public.