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 violated the group's constitutional rights. It extended 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 political retribution against an organization Herbert opposes. Two appeals court judges wrote in Tuesday's ruling that it's "more likely than not" that Herbert's order was designed to punish the group.
A third judge dissented from the ruling and questioned whether Planned Parenthood would ultimately prevail.
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.
Lawyers for the Utah branch argued that it has never participated in fetal donation programs and that defunding its programs serving teenagers and low-income people will leave thousands at risk.
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.
Herbert's representatives and Planned Parenthood in Utah were not immediately available for comment Tuesday. Utah attorney general's spokesman Dan Burton declined to comment.