BOISE, Idaho -- A U.S. District Court judge today upheld the right of Idaho and other states to withdraw their ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment and said Congress did not have the authority to grant an extension of a ratification deadline for the proposal.
Judge Marion Callister said action by Idaho and other states to rescind their previous approval of the ERA was lawful.
'The court declares that Idaho's rescission of its ratification of the 27th Amendment effectively nullified its prior ratification and Idaho may not be counted as a ratifying state,' Callister's opinion said. 'The same is true for any other state which has properly certified its action of rescission to the administrator of the General Services.'
Legislatures in Idaho, Nebraska and Tennessee have voted to withdraw their previous approval of ERA. A similar rescission in Kentucky was struck down by gubernatorial veto. In addition, lawmakers in South Dakota approved a resolution to render their ratification 'null and void.'
Regarding Congress' decision to extend the ratification deadline to June 30, 1982, Callister said, that action 'is void and of no effect.'
In Washington, The National Organization for Women announced it would appeal the decision.
NOW President Eleanor Smeal called the ruling 'erroneous and reprehensible' and said she was 'confident that our position is legally correct and the decision will be reversed on appeal.'
'We will seize this opportunity to focus national debate on ERA and it's importance to women,' she said. She predicted there would be a backlash to the decision that would boost ERA's chances in the states where it has not yet been ratified.
Callister said Congress has the constitutional authority to set an original time limit for ratification of a proposed amendment, but may not later extend that period when an insufficient number of states approve the measure.
Lawmakers granted the extension when fewer than the required 38 states approved the ERA. The original deadline expired March 22, 1979. Thirty-five states, including Idaho and several other states affected by today's ruling, had at one time ratified the amendment.
'The court is persuaded that the congressional act of extending the time period for ratification was an improper exercise of Congress' authority under Article 5 (of the U.S. Constitution),' the judge said.
He said Congress is not required to set any specific deadline for ratification, but 'if it chooses to do so to remove uncertainty regarding the question, it cannot thereafter remove that certainty by changing the time period.'
The judge called the congressional extension 'an unconstitutional exercise' of its powers.
Callister's decision had been expected since May, when attorneys converged on the Boise courtroom to present their first oral arguments in the case.
The 1979 lawsuit filed on behalf of Idaho, Arizona and Washington state lawmakers sought a court order declaring congressional extension of the ERA ratification deadline until 1982 unconstitutional.
It also asked the court to issue an order requiring the U.S. General Services Administration to accept the Idaho Legislature's rescission of its ERA ratification vote, saying the agency's refusal undermined the effectiveness of the lawmakers' votes.
Idaho Attorney General David Leroy -- who called the case a 'states' rights issue' -- claimed Congress did not have the authority to extend the ratification deadline. Attorneys for the government said the Constitution gave Congress -- not the courts -- exclusive power to set procedures for amending the document.
Leroy also said states had the right to rescind prior ratification votes -- but government attorneys claimed such a procedure would create havoc in the constitutional amendment process. They said the Constitution gave states only the right to accept -- not reject -- a proposed amendment.
Government attorneys also attacked the lawsuit as improperly filed. They said the states sustained no harm because Congress had not yet determined whether any of the states' ratification votes would be accepted -- and any suit over the issue was improper until that decision was made.
The lawsuit also spurred controversy in religious circles when the government asked Judge Callister to disqualify himself because of his position as a regional representative for the Mormon Church, which has taken an official stand against the ERA.
The judge denied the disqualification request, saying he would not allow religious convictions to enter into his decision. Government attorneys dropped the issue, and Callister subsequently resigned his church post.
But the National Organization for Women then fought to gain full defendant status in the case, taking that issue to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco -- and vowing to raise the disqualification question if admitted to the case.
The appeals court gave NOW full defendant status -- and the group quickly filed another disqualification motion, contending even an appearance of bias by the judge would jeopardize the case.
Callister again denied the request. The appeals court upheld his decision earlier this year, but said NOW could raise the issue again if Callister's final ruling were appealed.
The disqualification issue also prompted court briefs from STOP-ERA organizer Phyllis Schlafly, who said it would set a dangerous precedent nationwide if Callister were forced off the case.
She said Catholic judges, for example, also could be forced to disqualify themselves from abortion cases if NOW succeeded in removing Callister.