OPINION: Georgia high court hopeful seeks to make abortion a key issue

Georgia Supreme Court candidate John Barrow waves while participating in the Inman Park Parade on Saturday, April 27, 2024, in Atlanta. (Elijah Nouvelage for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Elijah Nouvelage for the AJC

Credit: Elijah Nouvelage for the AJC

Georgia Supreme Court candidate John Barrow waves while participating in the Inman Park Parade on Saturday, April 27, 2024, in Atlanta. (Elijah Nouvelage for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Make no mistake, abortion is on the ballot in Tuesday’s primary election.

No, nothing in the current law will change, and the procedure won’t become more, or less, available to women in the near future. But abortion has become THE issue in a race for a state Supreme Court seat.

Campaigns for such seats are normally snoozers. Only one incumbent justice has lost since the Georgia Supreme Court was founded in 1845 — William Fish was defeated in 1922 by Richard Russell Sr.

This time around, former Democratic Congressman John Barrow has made abortion the linchpin of his uphill campaign to oust Justice Andrew Pinson, who was appointed two years ago by Gov. Brian Kemp.

Barrow is an unapologetic abortion rights candidate. His strategy to use “political” tactics in the campaign has sent some court watchers to their fainting couches because judicial races are supposed to be boring.

Judicial races above the magistrate and probate level are nonpartisan, meaning candidates don’t have a D or R after their names on the ballot. Candidates traditionally extol virtues like being hardworking, honest or fair. They claim they’d simply call balls and strikes like a good umpire should and would neither lean toward the Yankees nor the Braves, no matter how rabid the crowd is.

Georgia Supreme Court Justice Andrew Pinson listens to arguments during a hearing about Cobb County passing its own district map at the Nathan Deal Judicial Center on Wednesday, April 17, 2024. (Natrice Miller/ AJC)

Credit: Natrice Miller/AJC

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Credit: Natrice Miller/AJC

Of course, boring races always favor the incumbent.

Barrow knows this. And he also knows the abortion issue has largely been a winner for Democrats. Barrow is an a old-timey Blue Dog Democrat who served five terms in Congress (2005-2015) and weathered a couple of GOP efforts to redistrict him into oblivion.

“I’m running because I believe that women have the same rights today under our state Constitution that they used to have under Roe v. Wade,” he said recently at a forum.

Correctly anticipating the U.S. Supreme Court would overturn Roe v. Wade, the state Legislature enacted the “heartbeat” law, which makes it a crime for a woman to have an abortion after a fetal heartbeat is detected. That’s usually at about six weeks into a pregnancy and before some women know they are pregnant. A lawsuit challenging that law still meanders its way through the court system.

With this in mind, the state Judicial Qualifications Commission, which polices judges, recently wrote to Barrow telling him to knock off the abortion verbiage because the issue might very well be back before the court he hopes to join. The JQC said he was mischaracterizing the role of a justice who “protects” certain rights and that he is telegraphing how he will decide.

Barrow took the JQC to court, asking a federal judge to tell the judicial watchdog to back off and leave him alone.

“They’re trying to shut me up,” Barrow said before the hearing. And Barrow, an impish man with a direct stare, isn’t going to shut up.

John Barrow speaks to a Democratic group in Hoschton, Ga., on Monday, April 15, 2024, seeking support in his race for the Georgia Supreme Court. Barrow is basing his campaign for the high court around his support for abortion rights as he challenges incumbent Justice Andrew Pinson in a nonpartisan election in May. (AP Photo/Jeff Amy)

Credit: Jeff Amy/AP

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Credit: Jeff Amy/AP

The judge, Michael Brown, noted the JQC letter to Barrow was supposed to be confidential and the candidate made it public by heading to federal court. Barrow’s attorney, Lester Tate, the former chairman of the JQC, told Brown they had to go public to preserve his client’s rights.

But, it’s clear Barrow doesn’t mind the fuss. The JQC brouhaha has caused his candidacy to churn though a few extra news cycles. He’s the underdog in this fight, so he just wants us to spell his name right.

People now know he’s the abortion rights candidate, good or bad.

“I believe abortion rights are protected by the Georgia Constitution, and the federal Constitution allows me to say that,” he said after court Monday. Besides, he added, “If you can’t talk about what elections are all about, then why do you have elections?”

Pinson has told the AP that politicizing nonpartisan judicial elections is a bad path to follow. “I think it shatters people’s confidence in an impartial judiciary,” said Pinson, who was a law clerk for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, who has probably done more than anyone to shatter that public confidence.

His campaign told me Tuesday, “Barrow is simply trying to distract from his own judicial ethics problems. Justice Pinson is committed to upholding his oath and maintaining the integrity of the court.”

The campaign gleefully brought up Barrow’s beef with the JQC. A flyer says Barrow’s style of campaigning would leave us with a judiciary filled with partisan hacks fulfilling campaign promises.

On that note, Barrow’s legal filing notes “campaign promises are—by long democratic tradition—the least binding form of human commitment.”

After the hearing, he said, “People are able to sneak into office without declaring their views. They imply one thing and then turn around and say the opposite.”

Notably, several U.S. Supreme Court justices were hard to pin down on abortion during their Senate confirmation hearings but then slapped down Roe as soon as they could.

Now, Pinson is not adverse to politics. He reported raising $1.33 million as of April 30, compared to Barrow’s $806,000.

Kemp is featured in a new TV ad decrying “partisan politicians in the courtroom,” before adding that Pinson is “the conservative voice we can trust.”

I guess that means conservatives are nonpartisan.

The Georgia Life Alliance and Ralph Reed’s Faith and Freedom Coalition are, according to my AJC colleagues, joining other conservative groups “with plans to distribute ‘voter guides’ amplifying their stances on abortion and other issues.”

I wonder what those stands will be.