NC Supreme Court candidate Jefferson Griffin uses anti-abortion rhetoric

NC Supreme Court candidate Jefferson Griffin uses anti-abortion rhetoric

An abortion-rights rally as Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed the 12-week abortion ban passed by the Republican-controlled legislature in May. (AP Photo/Hannah Schoenbaum)

By Michael McElroy

November 19, 2023

Judge Jefferson Griffin and another judge ruled that a mother could lose parental rights because she committed a crime while pregnant.

A North Carolina judge who ruled that a mother could lose her parental rights because she committed a serious crime while pregnant is running for the state’s highest court.

Judge Jefferson Griffin was part of a three-judge panel of the state court of appeals that ruled unanimously last month that a Durham woman could lose custody of her youngest child because she was pregnant with her at the time she was convicted of abusing another child. 

State law allows for the termination of parental rights when a serious assault is committed against a child in the household. But Griffin and the judge who wrote the decision, Judge Hunter Murphy, ruled that this also applies to children in utero because, they said, “life begins at conception.”

(The third judge on the panel, a Democrat, agreed with the decision to remove custody, but did not support the reasoning.)

The ruling sparked widespread criticism from legal experts who pointed out the dangerous precedent such reasoning would establish.

“Imagine putting a mother in jail because authorities determined that, over the course of her pregnancy, she should have exercised more, drank less coffee and taken more prenatal vitamins,” NC Newsline wrote about the case. 

Griffin is running for the NC Supreme Court seat currently held by Justice Allison Riggs, a Democrat whom Gov. Roy Cooper appointed this year when Justice Michael Morgan said he would run for governor instead of re-election. 

Ruling is withdrawn after backlash

Judges Griffin and Murphy based their reasoning on a 1949 NC Supreme Court ruling that an “unborn infant” had the same rights to inherit their parents’ property as their older siblings.

“Biologically speaking, the life of a human being begins at the moment of conception,” that court ruled. 

But that ruling also made it very clear that this standard applied only to property rights and inheritance. 

“Ordinarily a different rule or definition is applied as to when life begins, in tort actions and in criminal statutes.”

Judges Griffin and Hunter ignored or missed that part, advocates said.

The “life begins at conception” argument is a favorite of anti-abortion rights groups, including many who are seeking to ban abortion entirely in the state. It is likely that the state supreme court, which has a 5-2 Republican majority at the moment, will hear an abortion case of some kind over the next eight years. 

On November 10, after three weeks of heavy criticism, Griffin and the other two judges withdrew their ruling. 

It is unclear if or when they will issue a new ruling.

Author

  • Michael McElroy

    Michael McElroy is Cardinal & Pine's political correspondent. He is an adjunct instructor at UNC-Chapel Hill's Hussman School of Journalism and Media, and a former editor at The New York Times.

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