Mississippi Abortion case heard by GOP-appointed judge

By Emily Wagster Pettus

Associated Press

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) -- Although restricting abortion has long been a conservative goal in Mississippi, the Republican-appointed judge considering the constitutionality of the state's stringent new abortion law doesn't play politics in the courtroom, according to those who know him.

U.S. District Judge Daniel P. Jordan III temporarily blocked the new law that, if enforced, could shut down the state's only abortion clinic.

Jordan (pronounced JER-dun) is a former GOP county chairman. He was recommended for the bench in 2006 by his former boss, Republican U.S. Sen. Trent Lott, and nominated by President George W. Bush. But even in a state where top Republicans supported a failed 2011 ballot initiative to declare that life begins when a human egg is fertilized, attorneys from across the political spectrum say Jordan is not ideologically inclined.

"Some judges play politics, but that's one who does not," said attorney John Reeves, a Republican former state lawmaker who has handled cases before Jordan but has no business pending before him.

"Judge Jordan doesn't have any agenda," Reeves told The Associated Press. "His only agenda, from what I can tell, is to follow the law."

The state's only abortion clinic, Jackson Women's Health Organization, filed a lawsuit June 27 challenging the new law that was to take effect July 1. The law would require anyone doing abortions at the clinic to have privileges to admit patients to a local hospital.

Clinic owner Diane Derzis contends the law would regulate the facility out of business and limit women's access to a constitutionally protected procedure.

If the clinic closes, abortion providers could become nearly impossible to find in Mississippi. To avoid regulation as an abortion clinic, a doctor's office may perform no more than 10 of the procedures a month. The closest abortion clinics to Jackson are about 200 miles away, in Louisiana, Tennessee or Alabama.

The law was passed with bipartisan support in a Republican-controlled Legislature and signed by Republican Gov. Phil Bryant, who often says he wants the state to be "abortion-free." Supporters said the admitting privileges requirement should protect women's health, but Bryant also said the day he signed the law: "If it closes that clinic, then so be it."

At a hearing Wednesday, Jordan will hear arguments about whether to extend the temporary block he put on the law the day it was to take effect. Regardless of what he decides, his ruling is certain to be appealed.

"Though the debate over abortion continues, there exists legal precedent the court must follow," Jordan wrote in his temporary restraining order.

The U.S. Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision in 1973 established a nationwide right to abortion. In 1992, the court's decision in Planned Parenthood v. Casey upheld the Roe decision and allowed states to regulate abortions before fetuses are viable. The 1992 decision also said states may not place undue burdens or substantial obstacles to women seeking abortion, said George Cochran, a constitutional law professor at the University of Mississippi.

Because of the 1992 ruling, Cochran said Jordan's decision should be "a very straightforward thing."

"When you have members of the Legislature and the governor publicly saying that this is an attempt to have an 'abortion-free' state, then it's clear that it's designed to place an undue burden or substantial obstacle to women seeking abortion," Cochran said.

From 2001 to 2004, Jordan was chairman of the Madison County Republican Party in the Jackson suburbs. Cindy Phillips of Madison, who was Mississippi's Republican National Committee woman from 2000 to 2010, said she remembers him as an efficient chairman.

"It was very obvious he was very smart," Phillips said. "He had a good mind at doing this, and he took the job seriously."

Phillips hasn't been in contact with Jordan since he became a judge and said she doesn't recall discussing abortion with him.

This is not the first time Jordan has presided over a case involving a divisive social issue. In September 2011, he denied the Copiah County School District's request to dismiss a lawsuit that had been filed by a lesbian teenager, in which she challenged the district's refusal to run the senior picture she had taken in a tuxedo.

Jordan has also shown a no-nonsense demeanor. He once ordered Frank Melton, then the Democratic mayor of Jackson, to follow a cardiologist's orders and take prescription medication so Melton would be healthy enough to stand trial. The mayor was for a second time facing charges tied to the destruction of a duplex that Melton claimed was a crack house. He died before a second trial could begin.

How Jordan will rule has raised concerns from both the law's opponents and supporters.

Dana Chisholm of Clinton, president of Pro-Life Mississippi, said she was disappointed but not surprised that a judge, regardless of his political background, had temporarily blocked enforcement of the new law.

"It never seems like justice is on our side," Chisholm said.

Laurie Roberts of Jackson, state president of the National Organization for Women, said if Jordan allows the law to go into effect, women who can't afford to travel hundreds of miles for abortion will make "desperate decisions" to end unwanted pregnancies.

"We're already in an area of the country where women have a hard time having access to legal, safe abortion," Roberts said. "What happens when they have no access?"

Cochran said regardless of who appoints them, federal judges have no problem ignoring the politics of divisive issues. He pointed to the 1992 Supreme Court ruling on abortion as an example: the ruling was split 5-4, even though eight of the justices had been appointed by Republicans.

Jordan was 41 when he was confirmed to the federal bench for the southern half of Mississippi.

He comes from a well-heeled family with deep roots in Mississippi and its politics. His father, Daniel P. Jordan, was an athlete and student body president at the University of Mississippi in the late 1950s and early 1960s, some of the same years Lott was a student there. The elder Jordan earned a doctorate in history from the University of Virginia in 1970, and from 1985 to 2008 was president of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, the nonprofit group that owns and operates Jefferson's home, Monticello.

The younger Jordan grew up in Virginia and earned his bachelor's of business administration degree from the University of Mississippi in 1987. He earned his law degree from the University of Virginia in 1993 and was in private practice in Mississippi from 1993 to 2006, according to the Federal Judicial Center website.

The future judge worked for the Butler Snow law firm -- the same firm that hired Republican Haley Barbour this past January, when Barbour ended his second term as Mississippi governor. The daughter of current Gov. Bryant, Katie, is an attorney at the firm.

Former U.S. Rep. Wayne Dowdy, an attorney from the southern Mississippi town of Magnolia, lost to Lott in a 1988 Senate race when Jordan was working for Lott. Dowdy was chairman of the Mississippi Democratic Party when Jordan was nominated to the federal bench. Dowdy said at the time that he considered Jordan a good pick.

Now, after handling cases in front of Jordan, Dowdy sticks by his earlier assessment and said Jordan is "absolutely not" political.

"I've been very impressed," Dowdy said. "He has ruled against me. He has ruled for me. I understood it both ways."

Published: Wed, Jul 11, 2012