SALT LAKE CITY — A federal appeals court on Tuesday ordered Utah to keep sending money to the state branch of Planned Parenthood, overturning an unusual lower-court ruling that allowed the governor to block the group’s funding.
The 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver decided there’s a good chance the move was politically motivated and violated the group’s constitutional rights. The ruling extends an order that keeps the money flowing while a lawsuit goes back before a judge in Utah.
Republican Gov. Gary Herbert cut off cash last fall for sexually transmitted disease and sex education programs following the release of secretly recorded videos showing out-of-state employees discussing fetal tissue from abortions.
The Planned Parenthood Association of Utah said it did nothing wrong and the move amounted to retribution against an organization Herbert opposes. Two appeals court judges wrote in Tuesday’s ruling that Herbert likely used the controversy to take a public swipe at the group because it provides abortions.
A third judge dissented from the ruling and questioned whether Planned Parenthood would ultimately prevail.
Herbert believes contract decisions should be made by the state, and he is disappointed Tuesday’s ruling, his spokesman said. He and the attorney general will be considering the state’s next steps.
Lawyers for the Utah branch argued it has never participated in fetal donation programs. They also filed emails showing state health officials were concerned about defunding the programs that serve teenagers and low-income people.
State attorneys have argued that the governor has the right to end contracts and that Planned Parenthood was still under a cloud of suspicion when Herbert ordered state agencies to stop acting as a pass-through for federal money.
Herbert said he was offended by the callousness of the discussion shown on the videos, which sparked uproar among Republican leaders around the country.
Several states have moved to strip Planned Parenthood of contracts and federal money, and the organization has sued in states like Arkansas, Alabama and Louisiana.
While most court decisions have allowed money to keep flowing, U.S. District Judge Clark Waddoups in Utah decided the governor could block the money because the state has an interest in avoiding the perception of corruption.
While Waddoups acknowledged that the Utah organization has not broken any laws, he said it has associated with other Planned Parenthood entities accused of illegally selling fetal tissue to researchers for profit.
The contracts that the governor blocked are worth $275,000, a small portion of the organization’s $8 million budget. It also receives money through federal contracts, fees from clients, insurance and contributions.
Multiple investigations by Congress and several states have cleared Planned Parenthood of illegal acts. A Texas grand jury also cleared the group and instead indicted two of the activists who made the undercover videos.
Planned Parenthood representatives in Utah were not immediately available for comment Tuesday.