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Jessica Mason Pieklo: Republicans’ Anti-Abortion Moves Are Part of Wider “Authoritarian Movement”

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We look at the dueling rulings by two federal judges on the abortion pill mifepristone. A Trump-appointed judge in Texas suspended the Food and Drug Administration’s decades-old approval of the drug, while a judge in Washington state ordered the agency to maintain the status quo. Jessica Mason Pieklo, executive editor of Rewire News Group, says the judicial assault on reproductive health is “a constitutional crisis” that requires urgent attention. “This is not just about trying to restrict access to abortion pills. This is an authoritarian movement that is afoot in this country, and Congress needs to act.” Pieklo is the author, with Robin Marty, of The End of Roe v. Wade: Inside the Right’s Plan to Destroy Legal Abortion.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we continue our roundtable on these major decisions that came out Friday night, two federal judges handing down conflicting decisions on the abortion pill mifespristone, an anti-abortion Trump-appointed judge in Texas halting the 23-year-old FDA approval of the drug, while a judge in Washington state ordered the FDA to maintain the status quo on the abortion pill in 17 states where the attorneys general had brought a lawsuit, including the District of Columbia.

For more, we’re joined by Jessica Mason Pieklo, executive director of Rewire News Group, author of The End of Roe v. Wade: Inside the Right’s Plan to Destroy Legal Abortion.

Jessica, if I can get your response to these decisions? Clearly, in Washington state, the judge was waiting for the ruling from Texas and then handed down his. And then talk about what’s happening in Iowa with the attorney general halting payments for rape victims’ contraceptives and abortions. And the reason I’m putting these two together is this is a full-frontal assault.

JESSICA MASON PIEKLO: It really is. Good morning. Thank you so much for having me.

And I think what we are really seeing are the second, third and fourth dominoes falling as a result not just of the Dobbs decision, but of the Supreme Court’s decision a year prior to that to let Texas’s S.B. 8 take effect on the shadow docket. Those decisions cumulatively have sent a signal to conservative judges across the country that they can behave in any manner they choose when it comes to restricting reproductive autonomy.

These decisions out of Texas and the actions taken in Iowa are lawless, and we need to call them lawless. It’s good that the Democratic attorneys general filed the lawsuit in Washington as a countermeasure, because what we have now is a full picture of what trying to secure abortion rights and access via the federal courts looks like now. And it is competing jurisdictions shopping for favorable decisions, which is a poor sign, as Alexis McGill Johnson indicated before me, on the health of our democracy. This is truly a constitutional crisis we find ourselves in.

AMY GOODMAN: So, if you can talk about what happened in Iowa? This came out last week. The Des Moines Register reported it.

JESSICA MASON PIEKLO: Mm-hmm, right. So, what we have now is an attorney general who is, sua sponte, on her own, functionally saying, “I am going to review our state policy to see if we should be reimbursing costs related to rape exams, for example, and other reproductive health services to see whether or not they’re justified anymore.” What we are hearing are conservatives coalescing around the idea that reproductive healthcare is never necessary for women and people who can become pregnant, and that is alarming.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me ask you about Clarence Thomas and all the revelations about his undisclosed vacations with his wife, the well-known anti-abortion activist Ginni Thomas, that have been supported by Harlan Crow. So, he’s defended these frequent lavish trips by the billionaire Republican megadonor Harlan Crow, saying he was advised not to disclose this. Thomas also referred to Crow and his wife as being among his family’s dearest friends. Meanwhile, more information is emerging about Harlan Crow in which a tour of his Dallas-area mansion revealed he has a Nazi memorabilia collection, including a signed copy of Mein Kampf from Hitler, paintings by Hitler, Nazi medallions, swastika-embossed linens, and a garden filled with statues of 20th century dictators. Now, I’m bringing this up here because when all this was coming out, there was also a painting of a group sitting around together, Harlan Crow, the dear friend of the Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, next to Leonard Leo, founder of the Federalist Society — the Federalist Society so key in the rise of Judge Kacsmaryk in Amarillo, Texas. If you can talk about this throughline?

JESSICA MASON PIEKLO: Sure, absolutely. And thank you for the opportunity, because what we really have in this Clarence Thomas story and the ancillaries that have spun off is a snapshot in how policy by conservatives is being made these days. And it’s not in statehouses, truly. It is in these almost secret societies. To have Leonard Leo, one man who has spent over 20 years really influencing the conservative legal movement to the point where they have successfully captured the federal judiciary and can functionally turn it into a policymaking body, is truly astonishing.

And I think it’s important to highlight that Clarence Thomas story with the story out of the Supreme Court election out of Wisconsin, where conservatives are already suggesting that they are going to try and impeach Wisconsin Supreme Court Judge Janet Protasiewicz — I just messed up her last name; I apologize for that — but just simply for winning, because if Democrats win elections, according to conservatives, something must be amiss. Yet here we have the story of Clarence Thomas functionally amassing and retaining power simply by his access to a few wealthy donors. The contrast is shocking.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to read from Jezebel, which reports Kacsmaryk, Judge Kacsmaryk, “also has deep connections to the conservative Federalist Society, which have not been previously reported. President [Donald] Trump picked all three of his Supreme Court justices from a Federalist Society-vetted list that was personally curated by the group’s former executive vice president and current [co-chair] of the board, Leonard Leo. The Post reported that Kacsmaryk” — The Washington Post — had “attended meetings in law school and remains 'affiliated' with the group, but that doesn’t adequately describe his ties; Kacsmaryk actually co-founded the Fort Worth, Texas, chapter of the Federalist Society [and] has spoken [at] at least 10 of its events, most recently in New Orleans … the same day final briefs were due in the abortion pill case.

“[Leonard] Leo himself has financial ties to the firm where Kacsmaryk worked immediately before becoming a judge. After Trump first nominated Kacsmaryk in 2017, First Liberty Institute began paying the Leo-aligned firm CRC Advisors over $100,000 a year. At a February 2020 meeting, First Liberty Institute president and CEO Kelly Shackelford bragged about the wide-ranging effort staged by various groups to influence Trump’s selections for federal judges, [saying], 'Some of us literally opened a whole operation on judicial nominations and vetting,' he said. 'We poured millions of dollars into this to make sure the president has good information, he picks the best judges.'”

And then, finally, “Leo’s money is also being used to advance the abortion pill lawsuit specifically. … Twenty-two Republican Attorneys General [filed] a brief in support of taking the main abortion pill off the market and, wouldn’t you know it, the Concord Fund was the top contributor to the Republican Attorneys General Association in 2022, with a $1 million donation.”

This is long in the planning. And the question is, Jessica: What do you think needs to be done at this point? There are now congressmembers who are saying Congress has to pass a law protecting abortion. What about the congressional level and the — and President Biden?

JESSICA MASON PIEKLO: Oh, so much. I mean, at a minimum, we should have some congressional hearings on how the Federalist Society and Leonard Leo gets its money and moves it around. When we have an operation that is pouring more money into lifetime appointments than they are in some federal elections, what is going on there? The people deserve some answers. And so, I think daylight into the conservative legal movement is first and foremost what is required. It’s important to know that the Republican Attorney Generals Association was also intricately involved with the J6 uprising. So these folks are all connected. And it is incumbent on us to really shine a light on those connections. This is not just about trying to restrict access to abortion pills. This is an authoritarian movement that is afoot in this country, and Congress needs to act.

AMY GOODMAN: Jessica Mason Pieklo, we want to thank you so much for being with us, executive editor of Rewire News Group, co-author of The End of Roe v. Wade: Inside the Right’s Plan to Destroy Legal Abortion.

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