Georgia court candidate sues to block ethics rules so he can keep campaigning on abortion

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ATLANTA (AP) — A former Democratic congressman running for Georgia State Supreme Court filed a federal lawsuit Monday claiming a state agency is unconstitutionally trying to block him from talking about abortion.

John Barrow sued hours ahead of a deadline to reply to a complaint that he is violating state judicial ethics rules and that he must bring his campaign ads into compliance with state rules. Among the rules the Georgia Judicial Qualifications Commission complaint alleges Barrow is violating is one that bars candidates from making commitments about how they will rule on issues that are likely to come before the high court.

Early voting is ongoing in the nonpartisan May 21 election between Barrow and Justice Andrew Pinson, who was appointed to the nine-justice court in 2022 by Republican Gov. Brian Kemp. Incumbent justices in Georgia almost never lose or face serious challenges. The three other justices seeking new six-year terms are unopposed.

Facing that uphill battle, Barrow has made abortion the centerpiece of his campaign, saying he believes Georgia's state constitution guarantees a right to abortion that is at least as strong as Roe v. Wade was before it was overturned in 2022. The decision cleared the way for a 2019 Georgia law to take effect banning most abortions after fetal cardiac activity can be detected, usually in about the sixth week of pregnancy. That’s before many women know they are pregnant.

A challenge to Georgia's law is pending in a lower state court and could come before the state Supreme Court. Barrow says that when Pinson was Georgia’s solicitor general, he was the lawyer most responsible for the state supporting the Mississippi case that led to the U.S. Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade.

Pinson has declined to talk about issues but warned in an April interview with The Associated Press that making judicial races conventionally political will destroy people's belief that courts are fair and impartial.

“If Georgia goes down that road of politicizing these nonpartisan judicial races in that way, you lose that,” Pinson said. “I think it shatters people's confidence in an impartial judiciary.”

Barrow says the attempt to muzzle him violates his First Amendment right to free speech and his 14th Amendment right to equal protection under a 2002 U.S. Supreme Court decision that found Minnesota couldn't forbid candidates from announcing their views on legal and political issues.

“The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that I have the constitutional right to speak my mind on the issues. And that’s just what the Code of Judicial Conduct says,” Barrow said in a statement Monday. “That’s because the voters have the even more important constitutional right to know what they’re voting for.”

Courtney Veal, the Judicial Qualifications Commission executive director, did not respond to an email seeking comment.

The commission said in the letter to Barrow that its rules don't violate the decision. Instead, the complaint alleges Barrow went too far, saying he failed to emphasize the duty of a judge to uphold the law, “mischaracterized the role of a jurist as someone who should ( or would, in your case) ‘protect’ selected rights,” made commitments on the issue, misrepresented current Georgia and gave the false impression that his vote alone could change abortion law in the state.

“Unfortunately, John Barrow has decided to ignore Georgia's judicial ethics code,” Pinson spokesperson Heath Garrett said in a statement. “His lawsuit makes clear that his goal is to negatively politicize judicial races and destroy Georgians' trust in fair and impartial courts.”

State supreme court races nationwide have become much more political in recent decades, creating contests like the one last year in Wisconsin, where a liberal judge backed by Democrats flipped the court after defeating a former justice supported by Republicans and anti-abortion groups in the most expensive state Supreme Court race.

Barrow's campaign is the first sign that trend might be arriving in Georgia, which has become a battleground in partisan elections. Many members of the state legal establishment view Barrow's tactics with distaste.

On Monday before Barrow announced his lawsuit, Pinson's campaign released a statement from five former state Supreme Court Justices, 12 former state bar presidents and two former Judicial Qualifications Commission officials warning that voters must demand "that our judges be nonpartisan and refrain from making public commitments about how they will decide cases and issues.

“The alternative is a partisan judiciary that is emboldened to put campaign promises and personal preferences above the Constitution and the law,” the statement said. “The alternative would mean the end of the rule of law, and if our state starts down that path, we fear that it will be very difficult to turn back later.”