In the News | 05/09/22

Dem AGs pledge to hold the line if Roe falls

By Alice Miranda Ollstein | May 9, 2022

With the heightened possibility that abortion rights could, in a matter of weeks, be an issue left to the states, attorney general candidates across the country are reminding voters of the stakes.

State attorneys general are poised to have unprecedented influence over the future of abortion access — and they want to make sure voters know it.

Even before last week’s explosive disclosure of a Supreme Court draft opinion abolishing Roe v. Wade, Democratic candidates running for an office voters often overlook were pitching themselves as the last line of defense for the right to terminate a pregnancy.

Those running in red and purple states have pledged in speeches, social media posts and interviews not to prosecute people under whatever abortion bans their legislatures or governors impose, while those in blue states are vowing to keep local prosecutors at bay and preserve access to the procedure.

Republican candidates for attorney general, meanwhile, are promising to aggressively enforce state bans and act as a check on whatever efforts President Joe Biden and a Democratic Congress might undertake to expand abortion rights.

While attorney general races tend to have lower voter turnout and spending than gubernatorial contests, especially in “off years” like 2022, the state’s chief law enforcement office has long been a springboard for ambitious politicians and an opportunity to gain national prominence. The candidates will not only decide how and whether abortion bans are enforced in the near-term if Roe is overturned, but also could be tomorrow’s crop of senators, governors and vice presidents who make the laws in a post-Roe country.

Throughout the Trump and Biden administrations, attorneys general have used immigration, voting rights and abortion to try and thwart the president’s agenda, stalling or blocking legislation and regulation at the state and federal level.

Nessel, along with Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, is suing to strike down the state’s 1931 abortion ban, which would go back into effect if Roe falls, and has repeatedly gone after her opponent, Republican Matt DePerno, for promising to enforce that law that prohibits abortions even in cases of rape, incest or medical peril to the mother.

“It’s repugnant to me that we’re going back in time a century or more,” Nessel, who recently revealed she had an abortion when she was pregnant with triplets, told POLITICO. “Who the hell do these Republicans think they are to make that decision for me?”

DePerno, who was endorsed by former President Donald Trump, has pledged to enforce the state’s abortion ban with no exemptions for rape, incest or medical threat to the mother. He did not respond to additional questions from POLITICO about how he would approach the issue as attorney general.

While power of attorneys general varies widely among states, all could play a role in how dozens of often vaguely worded abortion bans are interpreted and enforced. In some states, such as Arizona, the attorney general can intervene to stop local prosecutors from filing criminal charges against doctors and patients who terminate a pregnancy.

Where that’s not possible, they can put out guidance that defense attorneys in those cases can use and advise against prosecuting people for having or assisting with an abortion.

And as anti-abortion-rights states try to reach beyond their borders to prevent people from going to neighboring states to end a pregnancy, attorneys general can defend their residents from charges and claims brought by other state officials or individuals.

Conversely, anti-abortion-rights attorneys general can direct local prosecutors to enforce a state ban and can themselves file charges against, say, a Planned Parenthood clinic for alleged violations.

Several Democratic attorneys general have signaled how they could use the powers of their office to protect reproductive rights in a post-Roe landscape.

In January, California Attorney General Rob Bonta released a memo warning every district attorney, police chief and sheriff in the state not to use any state law “to punish people who suffer the loss of their pregnancy” — calling out the cases of two women who were charged with “fetal murder” in Kings County after experiencing stillbirths related to drug use, only one of whom has had the charges dismissed.

That same month, Delaware Attorney General Kathy Jennings sued to block the town of Seaford from requiring an abortion clinic to hold burials for fetal remains at patients’ expense.

Democratic attorneys general have also banded together to challenge federal policies and intervene in other states’ legal battles over abortion. This most recently happened with Texas’ privately enforced six-week abortion ban, when blue state attorneys general argued in an amicus brief that their health systems will likely be strained by a flood of Texas patients coming in for the procedure.

“My opponents will say, ‘Why does he keep sticking his nose into other states’ business?’” Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul, who is running for reelection, told POLITICO. “But we’re an oasis for reproductive health care surrounded by states with legislatures who want to undermine access to reproductive health care. So guess where folks are coming when access is restricted.”

Heading into November, Democrats control 24 out of 51 attorney general seats — some of which are appointed rather than popularly elected. Twelve of those incumbents are up for reelection, several of them in states like Michigan where Republicans have or likely will enact abortion bans. Seven other Democratic candidates are challenging Republican incumbents and eight are vying for open seats.

Abortion-rights advocacy groups including NARAL, Planned Parenthood and EMILY’s List are highly attuned to these races and have mobilized — particularly after the release of the Supreme Court draft opinion — to endorse Democratic attorney general candidates, hold rallies with them, coach them on strategy and messaging, and urge their millions of members to donate to Democratic campaigns.

The Democratic Attorneys General Association is also leaning into the issue, announcing on Friday a record $30 million investment in the campaigns of their candidates in Georgia, Arizona and more yet-to-be named battleground states in light of “the national emergency on abortion,” nearly twice what the group raised in 2018.

Not only will the winners of these races play a major role in abortion law, but the post is also a reliable pipeline to higher office — so much so that the National Association of Attorneys General is wryly referred to in political circles as the National Association of Aspiring Governors. Several current and prospective governors and senators are former state attorneys general, as is the current vice president as well as the energy and health secretaries.

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