Georgia’s governor and others pile into state court race where challenger has focused on abortion

May 14, 2024, 1:16 PM

ATLANTA (AP) — Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp says he will spend more than $500,000 from his political committee to help a state Supreme Court justice he appointed win election.

The Republican Kemp isn’t the only conservative supporting Justice Andrew Pinson in his May 21 nonpartisan election against John Barrow, a former Democratic congressman who has built his campaign around abortion rights.

It’s a notable escalation as Barrow tries to knock off an incumbent justice, something almost unheard of in Georgia. While the contest hasn’t grown as intense as high court races in other states including Wisconsin, attention and spending are higher than in the state’s historically sleepy judicial campaigns. Three other justices are running unopposed for new six-year terms, despite Georgia’s battleground status in partisan elections.

At least two religiously conservative groups are also spending to support Pinson, while some backers of abortion rights are trying to mobilize votes for Barrow.

Kemp rolled out a television ad Tuesday endorsing Pinson that campaign strategist Cody Hall said is airing on Atlanta-area stations.

“We need judges who follow the law and uphold the Constitution, not more partisan politicians in the courtroom,” Kemp said in the ad, describing Pinson as “a conservative voice we can trust.”

Kemp’s Georgians First Leadership Committee is also advertising on digital media and radio and texting voters, Hall said. The Kemp campaign joined the fight with only a week before election day, and after more than 314,000 Georgians had already cast early ballots as of Monday.

Barrow said Kemp’s intervention proves Pinson can’t be trusted to protect abortion rights. Barrow argues that the state constitution protects abortion rights in the same way Roe v. Wade did before the U.S. Supreme Court overruled that decision. A case making that argument is pending before a lower court in Georgia and is likely to eventually reach the state Supreme Court.

“It confirms what I’ve been saying about his record,” Barrow said. “It shows that he cannot be counted on to rule that women have the rights under the Georgia Constitution that they used to under Roe. vs. Wade, or these folks wouldn’t be backing him.”

Kemp named Pinson, 37, to the high court in 2022. Many lawyers, including some Democrats, have endorsed him. Pinson has declined to interpret Georgia’s abortion law in interviews, saying it’s improper for a judge to discuss an issue he might later rule on. He warns against politicizing the courts.

Barrow argues 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 in 2022. That decision cleared the way for a 2019 Georgia law to take effect banning most abortions after fetal cardiac activity can be detected — usually around the sixth week, before many women know they are pregnant.

Cole Muzio, the president of Frontline Policy, a Christian conservative group aligned with Kemp, urged supporters to back Pinson in a Monday email.

“Your vote for Andrew Pinson in this race is a moral imperative,” Muzio wrote. “The winner of this race will have a vote on Georgia’s Heartbeat Law.”

Muzio said he didn’t know yet how much his group would spend.

Barrow, 69, served five terms in Congress and for a time was the only white Democratic representative from the Deep South. If he wins election, it wouldn’t change the conservative leaning of the court, where eight of the nine justices were appointed by Republican governors.

Endorsements for Barrow have come from Fair Fight Action, the political group founded by Democrat Stacey Abrams, which sent a joint fundraising email with Barrow; Planned Parenthood Southeast Advocates and Reproductive Freedom for All, formerly known as NARAL Pro-Choice America; and Reproductive Freedom for All, which is mobilizing members and volunteers to reach voters.

Pinson is outraising Barrow in campaign funds. Barrow gave nearly $175,000 from a previous state Supreme Court campaign to Georgians for Abortion Rights, a political committee created by state Senate Democrats, which he said is spending in the race.

Barrow is also fighting a state Judicial Qualifications Commission warning that his campaign speech may violate ethics rules barring judicial candidates from committing to how they will rule on issues. Barrow has sued the agency, saying it is trying to restrict his freedom of speech, and has asked a judge to block it from sanctioning him.

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Georgia’s governor and others pile into state court race where challenger has focused on abortion