Interim Maricopa County Attorney Rachell Mitchell is poised to take on Democratic challenger Julie Gunnigle in the November election.
In the August 2 primary, Mitchell was well ahead of Gina Godbehere with 58% of the vote for the Republican nomination.
Mitchell was appointed to the seat earlier this year after Allister Adel resigned. Gov. Doug Ducey had appointed Adel in 2019 after he had named Bill Montgomery to the Arizona Supreme Court.
Mitchell, along with five other criminal division chiefs, had written a letter in February urging Adel to step down. The attorneys cited ethical concerns over her sobriety and judgement. Adel resigned in March and died in April.
Gunnigle, who ran unopposed in the primary, won the Democratic nomination. She lost the 2020 general election to Adel by less than 2% of the vote.
This countywide seat will be important to watch come November, as access to abortion providers ceases across the state. It is the largest prosecutorial race on any ballot in the United States this year.
“We’re basically the last large jurisdiction that’s like double and triple down on War on Drugs policy that ends up separating families and wasting money,” Gunnigle said. “And then, to be the largest jurisdiction that is committed to prosecuting abortion under a law, which dates back to the Confederacy? This race should be on everybody’s radar.”
Arizona has an 1864 law prohibiting abortion, which originated in territorial law and was later codified in the Constitution, and a series of additional anti-abortion laws. Sen. Nancy Barto, R-Phoenix, sponsored SB1164, which the governor signed in March, making it illegal for providers to perform an abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy. The bill does not allow exceptions for cases of rape or incest.
Gunnigle directly addressed debate around the state’s anti-abortion laws with Chris Love, the former director of Planned Parenthood Advocates of Arizona, the morning the U.S. Supreme Court’s Dobbs v. Jackson draft was leaked. Planned Parenthood Arizona, Inc. paused abortion services that afternoon due to a “complex” legal landscape.
“I wonder if the chaos is the point,” Gunnigle said, of the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office.
County attorney officials said on June 27 that Mitchell will use “prosecutorial discretion” when faced with abortion cases in which a pregnant individual has experienced sexual assault or incest.
Mitchell held a news conference days later, confronting the issue of anti-abortion laws in Arizona.
“At this time, there are no submittals from law enforcement before my office related to abortion laws,” she wrote in a statement released by the office. “Should a case be submitted for review, this office will apply our ethical charging standard of a reasonable likelihood of conviction when deciding on whether the charges should be filed.”
Mitchell ran on a platform “to protect children and victims of sex abuse,” with priorities to deliver “accountability for all” and “restore trust” in the office, according to her campaign website.
“As I’ve said from the very beginning, the rules or the law governing abortion is not going to be decided by the county attorney,” Mitchell said. “It’s not appropriately decided by the county attorney. It’s appropriately decided by the Legislature, the governor and the courts.”
Godbehere, who is currently a municipal prosecutor in Goodyear, said that uncertainty over the law regulating abortion is causing Arizonans “confusion and uncertainty.” The former Goodyear city attorney last week said she agrees with Mitchell, in that the separation of powers in government exists “for a reason.”
“I do not believe it’s proper for the county attorney to ignore the duty of office because of some personal experience or belief,” Godbehere said. “It is dangerous for the county attorney to start down that path of substituting one’s own belief for the beliefs of the people they represent.”
Godbehere, who is an advocate for youth suicide prevention, said she is “actually trying to fix some of these issues in the criminal justice system.” Her campaign website reports she ran a pro-police campaign, promising “to be an advocate for victims of crime,” and “tough on crime.” Previously, she worked at the office for 25 years.
An injunction remains in the courts over a criminal code that threatens abortion providers with a Class 6 felony, when the procedure is performed based on “the sex or race of a child or the race of a parent of that child,” a child with a disability or a genetic anomaly.
Gunnigle, an independent prosecutor, said “not now, not ever” will she prosecute abortions, adding “when there are issues of inconsistent enforcement, it leads to even more harm.” Her platform posits five pillars: health care, “data-driven” criminal justice reform, public corruption, voting rights and “uplifting the morale in this office,” as listed on her campaign website.
“The group that Rachel Mitchell’s identified as people have suffered from rape or incest, they are now questioning how exactly to get their abortion permission slip from her, and she will not answer that,” Gunnigle said. “They want to be able to obtain an abortion in the state that they live for a procedure that may or may not have been illegal back when they were assaulted, and they can’t get any sort of clarity.”
Voting for this special election will occur with the 2022 general midterm on November 8.