Capitol Recap: Abortion turns Georgia high court race into political test

Former U.S. Rep. John Barrow, left, is making abortion the focus of his campaign to unseat state Supreme Court Justice Andrew Pinson. Conservative groups are joining together beat back Barrow's challenge in what is considered a nonpartisan race.

Credit: AJC, AP

Credit: AJC, AP

Former U.S. Rep. John Barrow, left, is making abortion the focus of his campaign to unseat state Supreme Court Justice Andrew Pinson. Conservative groups are joining together beat back Barrow's challenge in what is considered a nonpartisan race.

Conservative groups back incumbent against former congressman

It’s a nonpartisan election, but a race for a seat on the Georgia Supreme Court is turning into a political test focusing on the issue of abortion.

Georgia conservatives are getting behind Justice Andrew Pinson in his challenge from former Democratic U.S. Rep. John Barrow. That includes support from a group connected to state House Speaker Jon Burns called Georgia’s Future that has financed pro-Pinson digital ads.

The Georgia Life Alliance and the Faith and Freedom Coalition have also gotten involved, joining other conservative groups that plan to distribute “voter guides” involving their stances on abortion and other issues.

Barrow has made abortion a focus of his campaign, saying at a recent forum that he believes “women have the same rights today under our state constitution that they used to have under Roe v. Wade.”

That position — or its clear declaration — has drawn some heat.

The state’s Judicial Qualifications Commission warned Barrow that he had violated the Judicial Code of Conduct by making “misleading” pledges to protect selected rights and promises about “highly sensitive cases” likely to come before the state’s top court. The panel — whose powers include removing judges — urged him to immediately change his campaign message or face penalties.

Instead, Barrow filed a lawsuit asking a federal court to block the agency from seeking misconduct charges against him.

Pinson, who once clerked for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, has avoided speaking directly about issues that could come before the court while talking broadly about his philosophy. “I’m a judge, not a politician,” he said.

It’s a pricey competition.

Pinson has raised $628,000 in the past few months, with lawyers making hundreds of contributions. He reported having raised $1.33 million in total for reelection, with $731,000 cash in the bank.

Barrow took in $806,000 over the past few months, with $275,000 left on hand as of April 30.

Georgia is among the leading states for cutting kids off Medicaid rolls

Georgia joined Florida and Texas as the top states for cutting off children’s Medicaid coverage as part of a national process to determine who still qualifies for the health care program after its rolls swelled during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Together, the three states accounted for 45% of the children who were disenrolled from the program that serves low-income and disabled children and adults, according to a Georgetown University study.

Georgia’s share was more than 300,000 children who were dropped from the PeachCare for Kids insurance program.

During the pandemic, everybody on Medicaid stayed on and didn’t have to do the annual paperwork to show they still qualified. In Georgia the rolls swelled to one-quarter of the state’s population, 2.8 million people.

But now that federal pandemic emergencies have ended, the federal government is requiring every state to go back through all their case files over the course of a year to evaluate each one and make sure they still qualify. The process is still underway, although it’s set to end soon.

U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Rome, moved to oust a fellow Republican, Mike Johnson, from the speakership this past week but was soundly defeated in a bipartisan vote. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Credit: J. Scott Applewhite/AP

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Credit: J. Scott Applewhite/AP

Greene moves to oust speaker but fails

U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene took her shot. She missed.

A bipartisan torrent of boos and jeers rained down on Greene as she made her case to remove fellow Republican Mike Johnson as speaker of the U.S. House.

The House voted 259-43 to table the motion, rendering it inert. Ten other Republicans voted with Greene, as did 32 Democrats. U.S. Rep. Nikema Williams, D-Atlanta, was among them.

The vote came after the congresswoman from Rome met twice with Johnson early this past week. She had sought assurances that he would not allow a vote on any bill to provide additional money to help Ukraine in its war with Russia. She also wanted him to agree not to send bills to the floor that don’t have the support of a majority of Republicans.

Neither she nor Johnson confirmed whether an agreement had been reached, but it appeared she had put on hold her effort to oust him.

And then Greene made her move, even though Democrats had indicated they would vote to save Johnson — dooming it to fail.

Greene could file another motion to vacate at any time. Democrats have indicated they may not continue to support Johnson if multiple votes are called.

Geoff Duncan, a former Republican lieutenant governor, announced that he will vote this year to reelect President Joe Biden. Duncan said the presumptive Republican nominee, former President Donald Trump, lacks a "moral compass." (Natrice Miller/

Credit: Natrice Miller/AJC

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Credit: Natrice Miller/AJC

Former Republican lt. gov backs Biden over Trump

Former Republican Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, who broke with Donald Trump following the 2020 election, took it a bit further this past week when he said in an Atlanta Journal-Constitution op-ed that he will cast his ballot in November for Democratic President Joe Biden.

Duncan wrote that the former president “has disqualified himself through his conduct and his character” by seeking to overturn his election defeat and encouraging the mob that stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

“Unlike Trump, I’ve belonged to the GOP my entire life,” wrote Duncan, who flirted earlier this year with the idea of running as a candidate for the No Labels movement. “This November, I am voting for a decent person I disagree with on policy over a criminal defendant without a moral compass.”

State GOP Chair Josh McKoon was rather blasé about Duncan’s announcement while also noting his more recent work as a political commentator on television.

“Literally no Republican is surprised by the former lieutenant governor’s support of Joe Biden,” McKoon said. “It must be contract renewal time at CNN.”

Gov. Brian Kemp signed a $36.1 billion for the next fiscal year, which begins July 1, clearing the way for raises for teachers and state employees. (John Spink/AJC)

Credit: John Spink/AJC

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Credit: John Spink/AJC

Raises for state employees, teachers clear final hurdle

Georgia’s 300,000 educators and state workers can now count on raises after Gov. Brian Kemp signed a $36.1 billion spending plan for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

Under the Kemp budget plan endorsed by the House and Senate, rank-and-file workers will receive 4% increases — up to $3,000 — and teachers will get $2,500 more.

Some other employees, such as those in state law enforcement, will receive the 4% raises plus an extra $3,000.

Kemp also put his stamp of approval on the following spending items for schools and students:

  • More than $200 million extra will go to school districts to pay for transporting children to school, something local officials have requested for years
  • $100 million-plus will go to schools for security upgrades.
  • $48.4 million that Kemp officials added to the budget in March will help the state’s prekindergarten program reduce class sizes, increase teacher pay, and fund capital and operational projects.
  • $6.3 million more pay for reduced-priced school breakfasts and lunches for students.
  • $6 million will provide more literacy coaches in low-performing schools.

Governor signs package of election bills

The 2024 presidential election is now less than six months away, and Gov. Brian Kemp this past week signed into law a package of bills that empower voter eligibility challenges, require more audits and tighten ballot security.

The measures reflect Republicans’ latest efforts to revise election rules in the wake of the 2020 presidential election, when many supporters of former President Donald Trump said they mistrusted the voting process after he lost in both machine and hand vote counts.

The new laws are:

  • House Bill 974, which requires watermarks on ballots, the display of ballot pictures online, more audits of statewide elections and technological improvements to verify the accuracy of text on ballots.
  • House Bill 1207, which requires election workers to be U.S. citizens, allows fewer voting machines on election days, guarantees poll watchers close access and allows candidates to proof ballots for errors.
  • Senate Bill 189, which changes rules for mass voter challenges, eliminates computer QR codes from ballots, adds ballot security procedures and eases requirements for third-party presidential candidates to appear on Georgia ballots.

One election bill, Senate Bill 368, was among the dozen bills that Kemp vetoed. It would have prohibited foreign campaign contributions that are already banned by federal law and haven’t been found in Georgia.

Fulton faces another reprimand involving elections

The State Election Board reprimanded Fulton County after finding that it was likely that the county scanned over 3,000 ballots twice during the recount of the 2020 presidential election.

The board ordered the county to install an independent election monitor.

The case exposed errors in Fulton’s 2020 recount but didn’t indicate any fraud in the election, which Democrat Joe Biden won by a 11,779-vote margin in Georgia over Republican Donald Trump. Three vote counts — two by machine and one by hand — each showed similar results.

Election investigators said they were unable to confirm that the double-scanned ballots were actually counted twice in the recount, which was the official result of the election. During the recount, Trump gained 939 net votes against Biden in Fulton, where Biden received 73% support.

The case is the latest example of Fulton’s errors in recent elections, which the county said it has fixed.

In February, the State Election Board reprimanded Fulton for an initial failure to count 1,326 votes that weren’t loaded from memory cards during the 2022 primary.

Political expedience

  • Rice wins state House seat: Former Muscogee County Republican Party Chairwoman Carmen Rice won a special election runoff to finish state Rep. Richard Smith’s term in the Georgia House. Smith, who was chairman of the House Rules Committee, died in January. Rice defeated Sean Knox, a Columbus business owner, receiving 56% of the vote to represent House District 139, which covers parts of Harris and Muscogee counties. The two candidates will face each other again in the May 21 primary for a two-year term. Oral surgeon Donald Moeller is also in that race.
  • Ossoff’s online child sexual abuse bill becomes law: President Joe Biden signed into law a bill sponsored by Georgia Democratic U.S. Sen. Jon Ossoff and Tennessee Republican U.S. Sen. Marsha Blackburn strengthening requirements for internet providers and websites to submit reports to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children when they suspect a child is being sexually exploited online. The legislation also included language U.S. Rep. Lucy McBath has used in a similar proposal extending the time period that technology companies are required to preserve child sexual abuse images they report, giving law enforcement agencies a longer window to investigate and potentially bring charges.