Statehouse Rules: Groundhog Day, Abortion, and Newly Legal Civil Unions

It's a big country. Here's what's been happening this week in various parts of it.
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The states of the United States are known as the laboratories of democracy. They're where some of the most nationally significant laws and legislative initiatives get their start -- not to mention some of the most ferocious controversies. Before transvaginal ultrasounds were a controversial proposed addition to abortion regulations in Virginia, for example, they were an implicit part of a law in Texas that passed with little national comment.

In light of this, it's worth keeping a closer eye on what's happening in the statehouses and courthouses across the land, as well as on some of the quirkier goings on that make state politics such a lively business. To that end, here's a roundup from the states to round out your week.

The Ohio Attorney General wants even more answers in the Steubenville case. It's pretty unusual to have a state attorney general who is a former U.S. senator and member of the House of Representatives, but Ohio AG Mike DeWine is that unusual fellow, and his intensive prosecution of the offenders in the Steubenville rape case has shown a deft understanding of the politics of the prosecution (not to mention once again raising his national profile). And he's not done yet: "DeWine called the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation and told the organization that the Steubenville rape case was going to need a second investigation, eventually with a special grand jury called, even if it didn't lead to the prosecution of anyone .... Investigators have already interviewed 60 people, DeWine said, with others on deck. He plans on calling a special grand jury in Jefferson County in mid-April. State prosecutors will make the case. The grand jury can call witnesses and ask their own questions."

The goal is to examine the behavior of bystanders and who provided the underage teens with booze, among other loose ends.

Elsewhere in Ohio, a prosecutor announced he's seeking the death penalty for Punxsutawney Phil, the groundhog that incorrectly predicted an end to winter. So there's that.

In Pennsylvania, an abortion doctor is on trial for killing seven viable fetuses. This is the kind of case that gives everyone hives; it is so awful in so many different ways and taking place on such politically charged ground. "In opening statements in court on Monday, prosecutors charged that a doctor who operated a women's health clinic here killed seven viable fetuses by plunging scissors into their necks and 'snipping' their spinal cords and was also responsible for the death of a pregnant woman in his care," the New York Times reported. "The physician, Dr. Kermit Gosnell, 72, is charged with seven counts of first-degree murder as well as multiple counts of conspiracy, criminal solicitation and violation of a state law that forbids abortions after the 24th week of pregnancy...Dr. Gosnell appeared in Common Pleas Court on Monday to face a trial that could result in the death penalty if he is found guilty."

North Dakota Republican legislators plan a Monday protest of the state's new anti-abortion law. Any time you get Republican women from Fargo speaking out, you know you've crossed a line in the sand. "A group of GOP state lawmakers in North Dakota will protest new abortion restrictions on Monday at a Stand Up for Women rally in Bismarck, N.D., because they believe their fellow Republicans have gone too far. ... North Dakota recently passed the most restrictive abortion ban in the nation, which prohibits abortions after six weeks of pregnancy, and a bill preventing pregnant women from choosing abortion based on a fetal anomaly or genetic disorder," the Huffington Post reports. "...Lawmakers are currently considering two 'fetal personhood' measures that would effectively ban abortion in the state and complicate the legality of birth control, stem cell research and in vitro fertilization. [Fargo Rep. Kathleen] Hawken said the personhood bills are so extreme that she and approximately 10 of her Republican colleagues in the state legislature -- both men and women -- were inspired to speak out in defense of women's rights."

Colorado became the 18th state to sign off on a type of same-sex union. "With a stroke of the governor's pen, Colorado on Thursday legalized civil unions for same-sex couples, a major shift for a Western state where voters outlawed same-sex marriages in 2006," the New York Times reported. "The law makes Colorado the 18th state to allow gay marriage or some form of same-sex union, and its signing comes days before the Supreme Court hears two major cases on marriage equality."

And also toughened up its gun control laws. "Colorado's governor signed bills Wednesday that place new restrictions on firearms, signaling a change for Democrats who have traditionally shied away from gun control in a state with a pioneer tradition of gun ownership and self-reliance," reported the Associated Press. "...Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper signed bills that require background checks for private and online gun sales and ban ammunition magazines that hold more than 15 rounds."

Minnesota took a step closer toward permitting driver's licenses for undocumented immigrants. Reported Minnesota Public Radio: "A Senate panel passed a bill on Monday that would let illegal immigrants get a Minnesota driver's license, the most recent development in a push at the Capitol to train and ensure [sic] more drivers who aren't U.S. citizens." There are four states that permit illegal immigrants to get such licenses: Illinois, Utah, New Mexico and Washington.

"Montana is this close to allowing its citizens to eat their own roadkill." So says The Atlantic Wire.
 
What have I missed? Tell me what's going on in your state for next week's roundup at gfrankeruta-at-the-atlantic-dot-com.

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Garance Franke-Ruta is a former senior editor covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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