Attorney general candidates spar over abortion, recreational marijuana

Lt. Governor Tim Griffin and Democrat Jesse Gibson stand behind podiums on a stage

A debate between candidates for attorney general was held Wednesday morning at the Donald W. Reynolds Performance Hall, on the campus of the University of Central Arkansas in Conway. From left, the candidates are Republican Lt. Governor Tim Griffin and Democrat Jesse Gibson. The debate was televised by Arkansas PBS. (Screengrab from livestream)

During an Arkansas PBS debate Wednesday, Arkansas Attorney General candidates disagreed over Roe v. Wade, which affirmed a constitutional right to abortion in 1973. Democrat Jesse Gibson said the ruling was correct while Lieutenant Governor Tim Griffin, a Republican, said the case was not properly decided.

The U.S. Supreme Court overturned the case in June. The decision triggered the implementation of Act 180 of 2019 in Arkansas, which bans abortion in the state except to save the life of the mother in a medical emergency. 

“It’s been a long-time coming,” Griffin said. “It should be with the states. It’s with the states now.”

Gibson, who said women should have the right to bodily autonomy, called the decision “the most egregious form of overreach.” 

“It’s a matter of health, it’s a matter of safety and I will always protect that as your attorney general,” he said.

Griffin said he has a pro-life record, but has always supported exceptions for rape and incest. Arkansas’ abortion ban does not include these exceptions, but Griffin said legislators have been discussing the law and he expects that to continue when the General Assembly convenes in January. 

That’s still months away, said Gibson who asked how many women will “be put in impossible positions” before action is taken.

Gibson also expressed concern that arguments used to overturn Roe v. Wade could be used to overturn other legal precedents like same-sex marriage. Griffin said the matter has already been decided and he doesn’t see it as a major issue.

Gibson said he’s confused about what’s considered settled law and what’s not because Roe v. Wade had been “the law of the land” for nearly 50 years.

Despite having differing opinions on the issue, both candidates agreed on the importance of staying impartial as a lawyer and noted the attorney general cannot decide which laws they will or will not enforce.

“It’s tough and it’s one of the weird things about this office is you run under a political party banner but that you try to do your best to be neutral,” Gibson said.

As lieutenant governor, Griffin serves as president of the Arkansas Senate. When he’s been called upon to interpret rules in that role, Griffin said there have many he didn’t like, but he did what was right based on his interpretation of the law. 

“I will certainly pursue conservative policies as AG because a lot of what the AG does is pursue policies, but I will pursue the law in a nonpartisan way because that’s the job,” Griffin said. 

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Political experience

Griffin and Gibson are seeking to replace Leslie Rutledge who was first elected attorney general in 2014. She is competing in the lieutenant governor’s race along with Democrat Kelly Krout and Libertarian Frank Gilbert.

RELATED: Lieutenant governor candidates debate civility in politics

The attorney general serves as the state’s lawyer, chief law enforcement officer and chief consumer advocate, according to the Arkansas attorney general’s website.

Griffin defeated Leon Jones Jr. with 85% of the vote in the Republican primary. Griffin announced his bid for attorney general in February 2021, ending his campaign for governor, which he launched in 2020.

Griffin was first elected lieutenant governor of Arkansas in 2014. He was the state’s 2nd Congressional District representative from 2011-2015. He served as U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Arkansas from 2006 to 2007. He earned his law degree from Tulane Law School.

Democrat Jesse Gibson earned his law degree from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock William H. Bowen School of Law. He founded Gibson Law Firm in Little Rock in 2002. This is his first time seeking public office.

Changing the office

Both candidates said they would make changes to the office of attorney general including addressing its current advertising campaign, which both agreed has been a waste of money, and Gibson said is often partisan.

Gibson’s vision for the office is to return it to one of the top law firms in the state, “to not be a partisan political shop” and to represent the interests of Arkansans. 

Griffin would elevate the opinion section of the office and be more engaged with lawmakers, helping them work on legislation so if he’s called to defend a law, “it will be on solid legal ground.”

Gibson said his motivation for becoming an attorney and for wanting to be the state’s attorney general is his “desire to help the least of these,” while Griffin said he loves public service and this state, and he “will always be engaged.”

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Ballot issues

If approved, Issue 4 would legalize recreational marijuana use for adults in Arkansas. After giving the caveat that the attorney general may be involved in litigation surrounding the issue, Gibson said he supports recreational marijuana because more than 30 states have legalized it for recreational or medicinal purposes already. 

Supporting Issue 4 will put money in state coffers, bolster Arkansas’ economy and free up resources by eliminating the need for law enforcement to deal with nonviolent drug offenses, he said.

“It’s an imperfect amendment, but I don’t think we should make the perfect the enemy of the good,” Gibson said. “I think it would be a net positive across the board for the state of Arkansas.” 

Griffin is strongly opposed to the “ridiculous” constitutional amendment that he said would create more crime. He refuted Gibson’s claim that the amendment would help law enforcement, saying there are few people in prisons who are there for simple marijuana possession. 

Griffin also said recreational marijuana could be detrimental to economic development.

“If we’re going to have a bunch of poets in Arkansas, it may not matter as much if they’re all high, but if we want people doing high-tech jobs that they’ve got to pass a drug test for, we’re going to have a really hard time recruiting aerospace industry and car industry if they’re high on pot,” he said.

Issue 3, the Arkansas Religious Freedom Amendment, proposes amending the state constitution to prohibit state and local governments from burdening the practice of religion unless those governments show a compelling reason to do so. 

Both candidates said religious freedom is already guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution.

“This won’t really do anything,” Gibson said. “We’re free to practice our faiths in our own ways in our own time, and I think that’s something that we enjoy as Americans and it’s nothing that we have to put in our [state] constitution because we already have it.”

Approving Issue 3 indicates that Arkansans also want to enshrine religious freedom in the state constitution, Griffin said. 

“It’s got all kind of stuff in there that should have never been in the state constitution — that’s why I’m supporting Issue 2 — but this is the perfect example of the sort of thing that should be in the state constitution,” Griffin said.

Issue 2 would amend the state’s constitution to increase the percentage of votes required to pass constitutional amendments and citizen-proposed state laws from a simple majority to 60% of the votes cast. 

Both men answered questions during the hour-long debate, but only Gibson participated in the post-debate press conference.

 

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Antoinette Grajeda, Arkansas Advocate
Antoinette Grajeda, Arkansas Advocate

Antoinette Grajeda is a multimedia journalist who has reported since 2007 on a wide range of topics, including politics, health, education, immigration and the arts for NPR affiliates, print publications and digital platforms. A University of Arkansas alumna, she earned a bachelor’s degree in print journalism and a master’s degree in documentary film.

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