In September 2018, as credible allegations of sexual assault against Brett Kavanaugh threatened to sink his Supreme Court nomination, Senate Republicans hired career prosecutor Rachel Mitchell to turn things around. Mitchell eagerly obliged.
After publicly interrogating Kavanaugh’s accuser, Christine Blasey Ford, Mitchell wrote in a report that no “reasonable prosecutor would bring this case based on the evidence.” This wasn’t a criminal case, but having a special victims division prosecutor treat it as a potential one — only to discount it as lacking evidence — was apparently enough for several fence-sitting senators. Kavanaugh was confirmed 50-48.
Kavanaugh’s ascension to the Supreme Court, followed by that of anti-abortion judge Amy Coney Barrett, allowed the conservative justices to overturn Roe v. Wade last month, ending the constitutional right to abortion. As a result, abortion is now illegal or will soon be illegal in about half of all states — including in Arizona, where Mitchell is now the interim top prosecutor in the state’s most populous county.
The Maricopa County Board of Supervisors appointed Mitchell as interim county attorney in April after her predecessor resigned, which triggered a special election to fill the role for the remainder of her term. The outcome of the race will determine whether abortion will be prosecuted as a crime in Maricopa County, home to the third-largest public prosecutorial agency in the country and half of Arizona residents. Mitchell is up against one other candidate for the Republican nomination in August, the winner of which will face Democrat Julie Gunnigle in November. Gunnigle is the only candidate in the race who has pledged not to enforce abortion bans.
“I have been crystal clear since day one that I will never prosecute doctors or pregnant people for abortion. End of story,” Gunnigle said last month.
Arizona has an abortion ban dating back to at least 1901 — 11 years before Arizona became a state — that has been blocked by an injunction for nearly 50 years. State Attorney General Mark Brnovich (R) has asked a Pima County judge to lift the injunction, now that the Roe decision no longer stands in the way. Arizona passed a separate law in March banning most abortions after 15 weeks, which is set to go into effect in September. Yet another law, passed in 2021, that grants “personhood” rights to fetuses, embryos and fertilized eggs was blocked by a federal judge earlier this month. Both Mitchell and her Republican primary challenger, Gina Godbehere, have suggested they would enforce abortion bans that go into effect.
Prosecutors cannot protect abortion access in states where it’s banned, as health care workers will be increasingly unwilling to provide services in states where abortion is outlawed. But they can use their prosecutorial discretion to decline to pursue charges, protecting abortion providers, facilitators and recipients from criminal prosecution.
Gunnigle has been warning about the threat to abortion rights long before the Supreme Court overturned the Roe decision, because Arizona had never repealed its antiquated abortion ban. “If Roe v. Wade were to fall overnight, we would have criminalization of our most basic reproductive rights, and the county attorney would be the person who has the most control over everyone’s reproductive destiny,” Gunnigle noted in July 2020, when she first ran for Maricopa County attorney.
Gunnigle narrowly lost the 2020 election and began working as the legal director for Arizona NORML, a marijuana legalization organization. She represented a woman who was placed on the Department of Child Safety’s child abuse and neglect registry for 25 years for using legal medical marijuana while pregnant to treat hyperemesis gravidarum, which causes severe, prolonged vomiting. Gunnigle and her client fought DCS’s decision in court and won. Gunnigle is also the legal director for the Arizona Poor People’s campaign, working on eviction cases.
She planned to continue that work, but when then-County Attorney Allister Adel announced her resignation in March, Gunnigle’s phone immediately started ringing, constantly, for hours.
“Everybody was like, ‘Hey, we still have faith we can do this — do you?’” Gunnigle told HuffPost. “So, we got on the ballot in 21 hours.”
Gunnigle estimates that her campaign’s volunteer list doubled in size in the weeks after the Supreme Court overturned Roe, as the stakes with regard to abortion prosecutions became clear. “I’ve been communicating to voters, ‘Listen, I don’t want to wait for the federal government to do anything. We know they’re not going to do anything,’” she said. “We have our senator holding up national progress,” she added, referring to Arizona Democratic Sen. Kyrsten Sinema refusing to eliminate the filibuster to allow Democrats to codify abortion rights in federal law.
“But if we have a backstop here,” Gunnigle said, “this is one thing that can really make a difference.”
Gunnigle grew up in Phoenix and returned to the area after prosecuting financial crime and public corruption cases. “Coming back and seeing what had happened to my state over that period I was gone and watching the decimation in our public schools and all this money going to private prisons instead of being invested in our communities — that’s why I ran the first time,” Gunnigle said in an interview.
Shortly before the November 2020 election, Phoenix police arrested more than a dozen people protesting police violence. The Maricopa County attorney’s office, then led by Adel, charged the protesters with assisting a criminal street gang. The case fell apart after the local ABC affiliate revealed that police and prosecutors had lied to members of the grand jury to convince them that the protesters were part of a fictitious gang as dangerous as the Bloods.
By then, Adel was working part-time due to emergency brain surgery and claimed she was not fully briefed on the case — which its lead prosecutor disputed. Adel sought treatment for an eating disorder and alcohol use later that year, before resigning in March. Allister died the following month from “health complications,” according to a family spokesperson.
Likely mindful of the purple state she is running in, Gunnigle doesn’t refer to herself as a progressive prosecutor, but her policy positions are largely in line with some of the most visible figures in the progressive prosecutor movement.
She has committed to making expungement for eligible weed offenses “universal and automatic,” rather than requiring individuals to navigate the bureaucratic process on their own. She opposes money bail, or “wealth-based detention,” as she describes it, noting that a task force commissioned by Arizona’s Supreme Court has recommended eliminating the practice. She thinks prosecutors should heed calls from the community for a public health response to addiction and mental illness and is critical of how prosecutors use gang and weapon enhancements to elongate prison sentences. She now opposes the death penalty, a shift from her previous position that it should be used sparingly for the “worst of the worst” cases. Her position evolved, she said, because of concerns about executing innocent people and conversations with victim family members who opposed the death penalty.
“The things that I’ve been advocating for I don’t view as particularly progressive. A lot of these stances are Eisenhower-era criminal legal reform issues,” Gunnigle said. “I don’t know where I fit within a broader movement, but I do know what the community is calling for — and they are calling for evidence-based reforms.”