Georgia state Supreme Court fight puts abortion front and center

Abortion is front and center in a high-stakes Georgia Supreme Court race pitting a Republican-appointed justice against a former Democratic lawmaker seeking to make a political comeback.

Former Rep. John Barrow (D-Ga.) has made abortion a centerpiece of his campaign against Justice Andrew Pinson, an appointee of Gov. Brian Kemp (R) who once clerked for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.

Barrow has pointed to Pinson’s record on abortion, including defending Georgia’s six-week abortion ban as solicitor general before Roe v. Wade was even overturned, drawing on an issue that has bolstered Democrats from coast to coast since Thomas and a conservative majority in 2022 overturned the historic decision.

“I’m running for the Supreme Court of Georgia because I believe that women today have the same rights under the state constitution that they used to have under Roe vs. Wade, before it was overturned with the help of my opponent, and that’s why I’m running and that’s why I’m running against him,” Barrow told The Hill in an interview.

Pinson has alleged that Barrow is “running a hyper-partisan campaign based on promising to defy the judicial oath,” while some Republicans argue Barrow’s judicial campaign better resembles a congressional one. Members of the party say the Democratic candidate shouldn’t be taking specific positions.

“I just don’t think if you’re running for the Supreme Court, you should be stating any particular positions … because if you get elected, it’s going to make it difficult for you to be viewed objective,” said Republican strategist Eric J. Tanenblatt.

On his campaign website, Barrow says he’s running because “we need Justices on the Georgia Supreme Court who will protect the right of women and their families to make the most personal family and health care decisions they’ll ever make.” He’s also asserted that the Georgia state constitution protects abortion rights.

In the interview with The Hill, Barrow, who served five terms in Congress before his defeat in 2014, noted Pinson’s connection to Thomas and that he was once a member of the Federalist Society, the conservative group that has backed presidential candidates to nominate conservative jurists.

He’s also hit Pinson over the issue, arguing the sitting justice can’t be trusted to protect women’s and families’ rights in making personal family and health care decisions.

“He’s the one who has the strongest record on the issue [of abortion], I think of greatest concern to the most number of people and that I think will have the greatest impact on the direction of Georgia law,” Barrow said in explaining why he chose to challenge Pinson specifically.

Four of the nine Georgia Supreme Court justices are on the ballot Tuesday, but only Pinson is facing a challenger in what are nonpartisan races.

Pinson has bristled at the way Barrow has described his record.

“I can say at the outset, obviously, my opponent has misrepresented my record on a lot of things,” Pinson told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s “Politically Georgia” podcast earlier this month.

Pinson pointed out on the podcast that his campaign steering committee is bipartisan and argued that Georgia judges “are nonpartisan, and we take our oath very seriously to approach these issues and cases with an open mind in every case.”

Pinson’s campaign has argued that Barrow is trying to politicize a nonpartisan race and is running afoul of Georgia’s judicial ethics code. That code bars candidates from saying how they would decide issues that the court could potentially take up.

“Unfortunately, John Barrow has decided to ignore Georgia’s judicial ethics code. His campaign makes it clear that his goal is to negatively politicize judicial races and destroy Georgians’ trust in fair and impartial courts,” Heath Garrett, a strategist for Pinson, told The Hill in an email.

A complaint initiated within the Georgia Judicial Qualifications Commission earlier this month has roiled the race. The complaint argued the Democrat had gone too far in his remarks on abortion as a candidate.

The complaint alleged that Barrow was making commitments on issues that could come before the state Supreme Court and “mischaracterized the role of a jurist as someone who should (or would, in your case) ‘protect’ selected rights, which is misleading,” among other concerns.

Barrow filed a lawsuit in response arguing the complaint violated free speech rights. A federal judge rejected his lawsuit Thursday — a move that will require him to file a new lawsuit or appeal his existing one, according to The Associated Press.

Some Republicans are skeptical the issue of abortion will threaten Pinson.

“I don’t think they’re so upset about this issue that they would oust an incumbent Supreme Court justice,” conservative radio show host and former Kemp aide Martha Zoller said of Georgia voters.

Barrow, for his part, has rebuffed the idea that he’s politicizing a judicial race, asserting “it’s a constitutional issue, that is not politicization.”

Others like LaTosha Brown, a co-founder of Black Voters Matter Fund based in Atlanta, see it differently, saying “Barrow has the courage and the clarity to actually respond to what his voters are demanding that he responds to.”

Though Georgia Supreme Court elections are nonpartisan, the GOP has greatly shaped the court’s makeup. GOP governors have tapped eight of the court’s nine members.

Once sleepy affairs, judicial elections have grown in prominence as state Supreme Courts have become the final say on key issues like redistricting and abortion access.

An election for a vacancy on the Wisconsin Supreme Court last year saw $40 million in spending. A liberal candidate who backed abortion rights won.

Republicans argued the candidate went too far by supporting abortion rights on the campaign trail and in calling the state’s legislative maps “rigged.”

The Wisconsin Judicial Commission tossed out several complaints against liberal Justice Janet Protasiewicz. Neither Protasiewicz nor her conservative challenger during that campaign said how they’d rule on issues before the state court.

Barrow faces an uphill battle in ousting Pinson. The election is not expected to have a heavy turnout, and sitting judges also rarely lose reelection.

Many Republicans expect Pinson to win reelection next Tuesday easily. But some Democrats believe Barrow has a chance.

Democratic strategist Amy Morton said polling on the issue shows surveyed men and women both think “Georgia’s gone too far” on abortion, which could help Barrow get a win.

For the latest news, weather, sports, and streaming video, head to The Hill.