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Three decades ago, ACLU sued Idaho over abortion rights. That's how ACLU of Idaho began

Louise Melling is deputy legal director at the ACLU national office, Leo Morales is executive director of ACLU of Idaho
ACLU of Idaho
Louise Melling is deputy legal director at the ACLU national office, Leo Morales is executive director of ACLU of Idaho

A series of new abortion restrictions passed through the Idaho Legislature and the ACLU immediately pushed back with lawsuits, challenging the restrictions’ constitutionality. Ripped from the headlines? Actually, it was actually 30 years ago.

Louise Melling, now the deputy legal director at the ACLU National Office, remembers it well. She filed suit in Idaho in 1993 and by 1994, the court ruled the proposed rules violated the constitution.

“We won,” said Melling. “This was a time when Idaho was really taking pride … stood out, stood proud.”

Those actions were part of the foundation for ACLU of Idaho to become an official affiliate.

“I thought at some point we are going to bring Louise back to Idaho, “ said Leo Morales, executive director of ACLU of Idaho. “Louise has been so influential in the work that we've done here in the state, and continues to do incredible work across the country.”

As ACLU of Idaho wages a new round of legal battles with very familiar themes, they’re also taking time to honor that three-decade legacy. Melling and Morales join Morning Edition host George Prentice to talk about the legal battle for abortion rights, then and now, and their plans for a gala which will indeed bring Melling back to the Gem State.

Read the full transcript below:

GEORGE PRENTICE: It's Morning Edition. Good morning. I'm George Prentice. It is interesting to note that when we track the history of the ACLU of Idaho, tracks with abortion rights. In the early 90s, anti-abortion efforts surfaced at the legislature. Go figure. A local chapter of ACLU influenced then-Governor Cecil Andrus to veto those measures.  Soon thereafter. ACLU of Idaho became an official affiliate, and that fight and many others continue to this day…30 years later. So, let's welcome in Leo Morales, executive director of ACLU of Idaho. And Luise Melling is here, deputy legal director of the ACLU National Office. She joins us from New York. She is also the director of the Ruth Bader Ginsburg Center for Liberty. Good morning to you both.

LOUISE MELLING: Good morning.

LEO MORALES: Good morning, George.

PRENTICE: Up top, I'd like to ask a little bit about your work. There are only so many hours in the day… so many days in the week. And I have to assume that your inbox just gets taller and taller, and those fights continue on all sides.

MORALES: Thank you, George. Well, as you know, as an Idahoan, the ACLU of Idaho faces an uphill battle in this particular state. Multiple issues all over the place. You know, it doesn't just start during the legislative session. It actually continues the entire year. So with regards to what my day to day looks like, it really is catching up with morning priorities, setting up the priorities for the day and then following up with colleagues. I'm very fortunate to be working at an organization where we have an excellent team in Idaho, but not just in Idaho. We are a national organization, so I have the privilege to work with colleagues from across the country. And usually during the during the day in my inbox, I have emails from all over the country, for that matter, not just from my colleagues here in Idaho, but that that gives you a sense of the machine of the operations. So working with our staff here in Idaho, working with colleagues across the country and coalition partners as well.

MELLING: Yeah. I was just going to add that we never do it alone. We're always doing this work together with people in the community, together with advocates, together with people who are affected, which includes staff as well as people not on staff, as well as cooperating counsel. I mean, this is a this is a community in a sense.

PRENTICE: Louise, let me ask you about your particular professional connection with Idaho. Talk to me about coming to Idaho a few decades ago.

MELLING: I believe I filed a lawsuit…I think it was in 1993. I know that I got a really good decision in February of 1994, but first came to Idaho in 1993, filing a suit, arguing that the state Constitution required more protection than the federal Constitution, and in particular arguing that under the state constitution, the state couldn't exclude abortion from the Medicaid program, that that was a violation of privacy and equal protection. So, it was exciting to be there. We won in the trial court in in Idaho. This was a time when Idaho was really taking pride in the independence of its constitution. It was a time when the federal Constitution was being subject to rulings that really were starting to restrict rights in Idaho, stood out, stood proud to say ours is independent. We can look at it. And in this context, we got a favorable ruling in the trial court.

PRENTICE: Leo That sounds like it could have been yesterday.

MORALES: Absolutely. I mean, we still have those fights today with regards to the axis around abortion and the continued attack that we have on reproductive rights here in the state of Idaho. We've already filed some lawsuits as a result of the work that the legislature. But to Louise's point. Right in part of our origins here in the state, like in the early 90s, we had an intensity of legislation, but also beyond legislation. We have groups, we had groups of individuals coming to the state very similar to what we still have today, introducing policies that hurt Idahoans. But yes, it's the work around abortion rights about 30 years ago is still very new. During last session, we actually filed a lawsuit recently, multiple lawsuits, actually, one against Attorney General Raul Labrado for making it illegal and criminalizing doctors for doing their job, for counseling individuals that can lawfully seek abortions outside of the state. That's just one. And we recently also filed another lawsuit related to even just the discussion of abortion. And this was against also the attorney general's office, but as well as county prosecutors who have at this point. You know, have the power to potentially prosecute professors for having a discussion about abortion in the classroom. So this is now and again, 30 years ago, we were working on similar issues. But it's… you're right, it was just like it feels like it was just yesterday. We're working on this issue, which George, reminds me, I’m part of our team at the ACLU is that we must be eternally vigilant. Right? Eternally vigilant. And that's a part of the theme that we have here at the ACLU.

PRENTICE: Well, let's talk a little bit about that, because certainly you have colleagues and professionals that you each work with, but the ACLU is also your members.

MORALES: We have over 5,000 Idahoans that are members of the organization. And that speaks to the power that we have in the organization as well, members that are very active in their respective communities, but also taking action on national issues that it's important to the overall membership. And Louise, I think we're over time. What number we are, but we're in the millions with regards to membership across the country as well.

MELLING: I think the last data I saw was 2 million….about 2 million members and supporters. But I like to think that number is always increasing. So, today maybe it's different.

PRENTICE: Louise Melling, working at the Ruth Bader Ginsburg Center for Liberty. I would be remiss if we did not talk for just a moment about RBG and her very strong connection to Idaho.

MELLING: Sure. So Ruth Bader Ginsburg, I imagine your listeners all know the Supreme Court ,and she was the head of the women's rights program at the ACLU. She argued some of the most important very early cases in the in the women's rights space and argued cases that establish the federal constitutional protection for gender in the sense of saying that there would be added federal constitutional scrutiny for discrimination based on sex and one of her early cases… yes…was in Idaho. And this arose in particular with a couple after their child died. And the mother, as well as the father, each filed to be the administrator of the estate and the under state law, that would that would be a job for a man. And she challenged that, saying no. What's interesting, just to note as people think about these cases, is that one of. Ruth Bader Ginsburg had a really capacious understanding of how to think about gender and sex. And several of her cases she filed on behalf of men. I think that's just important when we start to just think about these conversations that the gender stereotypes and the gender roles we lock people into locked people like me out of a lot for a really long time, but they also locked men into particular roles. They locked obviously they lock. We continue to have conversations about the ways in which our visions of gender lock non-binary people and LGBT people in different roles. So she was a real pioneer in those spaces.

PRENTICE: Anyone who has been in her presence….wow…a rather extraordinary person.

MELLING: Completely extraordinary. If you haven't seen the films, there's a documentary as well as a popular culture version of it. And they're both really inspiring. I'll admit to you that when I meet somebody who's famous….I'm very shy.

PRENTICE: Leo, talk to me about being in the presence of Louise Melling.

MORALES: I've had multiple opportunities now, but it is I mean, it's incredible. When I first learned of Louise and the work that Louise has done in the state of Idaho. Oh my God, it's incredible. And I thought at some point we are going to bring Louise back to Idaho. And so it's great that we're able to make it happen, because Louise has been so influential in the work that we've done here in the state and continues to do incredible work across the country as well. So it's such a neat treat that we in Idaho will actually have Louise Melling as our keynote speaker for our 30th anniversary coming up here on the 22nd of September.

PRENTICE: So this is a gala, a banquet? Talk to me about this.

MORALES: Yes. So it's an anniversary gala. It's an anniversary dinner on September 22nd. There's still tickets that folks can go to our website. But it is an opportunity for us to really celebrate the last 30 years that we have been an affiliate of the national office here in the state of Idaho in a great accomplishments, great work that has been done. It's not every year that we actually get to celebrate the work and the existence of this incredibly powerful organization in the state. But it is September. It's Friday, September 22nd, an evening event. It's a ticketed event. And we invite members and members of the general public to join us in celebrating civil rights and civil liberties, along with Louise, who will be coming in from New York.

MELLING: Yeah, I'm really excited. I'm really proud of the work the affiliate has done. I'm really excited to see the people I'm still in touch with from the case. I'm still in touch with clients, I'm still in touch with co-counsel. And I think what that really speaks to is the community that exists in Idaho. You know, Leo was talking earlier about the really harsh abortion laws, and the state has really doubled down and passed quite a number of restrictions to really harm trans youth or try to legislate trans youth out of existence. So we have that on the one hand and on the other side, you have people throughout the state who are just so committed, so committed to one another, so committed to standing up and being clients in these cases, committed to being co-counsel, committed to providing care. I was just reading today a letter that some several doctors who provide care in in Idaho for trans youth wrote to The Idaho Statesman. It's a letter addressed to the trans youth in the state to say, “We see you, we care about you. You're a beautiful people. Our state is better because you're here.”  And it's that hope and that aspiration and that commitment that just really makes me so excited to come back.

PRENTICE: Louise Melling is deputy legal director of the ACLU National Office and the director of the Ruth Bader Ginsburg Center for Liberty. Leo Morales is executive director of ACLU of Idaho. For now, thanks for giving me some time this morning.

MORALES: Thank you, George.

MELLING: See you. Bye bye.

Find reporter George Prentice on Twitter @georgepren

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