Florida AG’s office rejects local abortion ban in Manatee County, cites state authority

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FILE – In this June 8, 2020, file photo, Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody speaks during a roundtable discussion at the White House in Washington. On Wednesday, July 21, 2021, Moody tweeted that she has tested positive for COVID-19. Moody said she had been vaccinated for the virus earlier in the year. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File)

TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — Efforts by the Manatee County Commission to locally restrict abortions were shut down by the Florida Attorney General’s Office this month.

The commission had asked in September if Manatee County could become a “Safe Haven” for unborn children, prompting local protests. The move came shortly after Texas passed its sweeping abortion ban, which prohibits abortions after six weeks, before most women know they’re pregnant. Florida state lawmakers later efforted their own versions of the so-called heartbeat bill for Florida.

Attorney General Ashley Moody’s office rejected the Manatee County Commission’s effort for its preemption of the state’s right to regulate abortion clinics across the State of Florida, according to a Dec. 2 letter. Despite the state’s stance on the abortion laws making their way through the higher courts, legal precedent from 1985 set the stage for the policy’s rejection by the AG’s office.

In a case from the City of Ocala, the attorney general at the time determined that the state could not be preempted by municipal governments in its regulation of how abortion clinics operate in Florida. Specifically, the Florida Statutes have a section that sets the authority for abortion regulation on the state government’s shoulders, rather than allow for “a comprehensive legislative scheme” by local powers.

While the AG’s office admits the statutes have “been amended numerous times,” and say that it’s possible the attorney general or a Florida court “might take a different view of the issue of state preemption,” Manatee commissioners did not provide a statutory reason to change the rule for their county.

Instead, the authority to regulate operation of abortion clinics is “delegated by the Legislature to the enforcing agency” and has been since 1985. The Agency for Health Care Administration is the party in state government that handles regulation, as “treatment of persons in abortion clinics” is one of its duties, which includes ensuring “the safe operation of such clinics,” according to the AG’s letter.

The AG’s office found that the county’s question on creating its own local abortion restrictions had already been answered, more recently in a September 2005 ruling where the legislature said “legitimate interest in ensuring that abortions, like any other medical procedure, be performed under circumstances that ensure maximum safety for the patient.”

It’s a regulation further enacted in the Women’s Health and Safety Act of 2005. The AG’s General Counsel, Charles M. Trippe, Jr., also notes that the Manatee County effort also may involve currently pending proposed legislation.

As a result, state attorneys determined that “unless and until judicially or legislatively determined otherwise,” the county would not be allowed to adopt new ordinances that regulate or ban abortion clinics, aside from “reasonable zoning ordinances,” and doing so would be preempted by state law.

The county was invited to revisit the issue after the legislature considers the proposal.

Copyright 2022 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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