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An Arizona Supreme Court judge who once accused Planned Parenthood of committing genocide has agreed to recuse himself from a case involving the organization that will determine the future legality of abortion in the state.
In October, Planned Parenthood Arizona called for Justice Bill Montgomery to step away from the case after the resurfacing of a 2017 Facebook post in which he said its national counterpart was responsible for the “greatest generational genocide known to man.” The organization, which runs four of the state’s nine abortion clinics and is the main litigant in the case, argued that Montgomery’s vehement opposition to it threatens to jeopardize its right to a fair and impartial trial.
In fewer than two weeks, the high court is scheduled to hear arguments in a lawsuit over whether to reinstate a near-total ban from 1864 that carries with it mandatory prison time for doctors who perform abortions for any reason other than saving the patient’s life. The 1864 law was briefly in place last year, but the Arizona Court of Appeals ruled that a 2022 law banning abortions after 15 weeks should be the law of the land instead. The case was revived when a local anti-abortion doctor appealed, seeking to convince the state supreme court to reverse the lower court’s decision and make the procedure illegal in virtually all cases.
Initially, Montgomery dismissed Planned Parenthood Arizona’s request, rebutting that his criticism had been directed at its parent organization and he has made no comments indicating his position on abortion legality since then. And, Montgomery said in his response last week, his actions as a Maricopa County Attorney, which included attending a protest in front of Planned Parenthood of Arizona’s headquarters in 2015, aren’t governed by the same ethical rules he now follows as a judge. Arizona’s Code of Judicial Conduct advises judges to recuse themselves when their “impartiality might reasonably be questioned,” especially when the judge has a personal bias against one of the parties or lawyers involved in a case.
“When each of the statements were made in 2015 and 2017, I was not a member of the judiciary nor was I a candidate for judicial office,” Montgomery wrote in an order last week. “Therefore, the Code of Judicial Conduct did not apply.”
On Thursday, Montgomery changed course, issuing a new order announcing his decision to recuse himself from the case. Judges, Montgomery said, are responsible for continuously considering whether recusal is necessary under the state’s judicial code of conduct guidelines. And, he added, “additional information” related to the parties involved in the case had come to light since his first dismissal that warranted his recusal. He did not offer further explanation on what that information might be and a spokesperson for the Arizona Supreme Court did not elaborate.
Notably, in his first order rejecting Planned Parenthood Arizona’s request, Montgomery revealed that in 2015, in his position as Maricopa County Attorney, he conducted a quiet investigation of some of the organization’s files after receiving them from individuals who cleaned a building Planned Parenthood Arizona had recently vacated. Montgomery engaged a local law firm to review the files for evidence of any “criminal, civil or administrative wrongdoing,” but when the documents turned out to be donor lists and contribution records, Montgomery closed the investigation, ordered them destroyed to protect confidential information and didn’t make any information concerning the investigation public.
Planned Parenthood Arizona applauded Montgomery’s recusal, saying his decision upholds the organization’s right to a fair trial.
“We believe that all litigants in Arizona are entitled to have their cases heard by judges who are not biased against them, and that includes Planned Parenthood Arizona,” said Kelley Dupps, a Planned Parenthood spokesperson, in an emailed statement. “We welcome today’s order and believe the information we presented in our motion was more than sufficient for Justice Montgomery to recuse himself.”
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