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Indiana high court reprimands AG for remarks about 10-year-old rape victim's doctor

The Indiana Supreme Court has found the state's attorney general, Todd Rokita, violated professional conduct rules in his remarks about an abortion provider. Rokita is seen here speaking in Indianapolis in 2021.
Darron Cummings
/
AP
The Indiana Supreme Court has found the state's attorney general, Todd Rokita, violated professional conduct rules in his remarks about an abortion provider. Rokita is seen here speaking in Indianapolis in 2021.

Updated November 3, 2023 at 4:34 PM ET

Indiana Attorney General Todd Rokita made national headlines in 2022 when he criticized a doctor who provided an abortion for a 10-year-old rape victim from Ohio. In doing so, he also violated two rules governing attorney conduct, according to the Indiana Supreme Court.

The high court issued a public reprimand of Rokita on Thursday, saying his comments about Dr. Caitlin Bernard were highly likely to create improper influence and also "had no substantial purpose other than to embarrass or burden the physician."

The court noted that in a sworn affidavit, Rokita, a Republican, "admits these two rule violations and acknowledges that he could not successfully defend himself on these two charges if this matter were tried."

All parties agreed upon the outcome, but the five justices were split on the punishment: Chief Justice Loretta Rush and Justice Christopher Goff dissented, "believing the discipline to be too lenient based on the Respondent's position as Attorney General and the scope and breadth of the admitted misconduct."

How did the case start?

In July 2022, a tragic story emerged about a young girl in Ohio who, only about a week after the U.S. Supreme Court's decision nullifying the constitutional right to abortion, had to travel to neighboring Indiana to terminate a pregnancy that was three days over Ohio's six-week abortion restriction.

That same month, an Ohio man was arrested for raping the girl when she was 9. He has since been sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole.

When the girl's shocking story came out, many Republicans who are against abortion questioned or outright denied its veracity. Rokita took particular aim at her doctor, suggesting his office would look at Bernard's medical license.

In an interview on the Fox News Channel on July 13, 2022, Rokita accused Bernard of being an "abortion activist acting as a doctor — with a history of failing to report."

The doctor was later reprimanded

The Indiana Department of Health released a document to NPR and other outlets last year, indicating that Bernard had in fact filed an official report stating that she provided a medication-induced abortion to the girl on June 30. Her employer also affirmed that the doctor hadn't violated any privacy laws.

But in May, Indiana's Medical Licensing Board reprimanded Bernard, saying after a hearing that she had violated privacy laws when she spoke out about her patient's case.

When Bernard testified in that hearing, Deputy Attorney General Cory Voight asked her if "we wouldn't be sitting here today" had she not spoken to the media about the girl's case.

"I think that if the attorney general, Todd Rokita, had not chosen to make this his political stunt, we wouldn't be here today," Bernard replied.

The legal disciplinary process against Rokita began in September, and it now seems that the attorney general was essentially snared in a trap of his own making.

As the Indiana justices found Rokita's remarks were very likely to prejudice an adjudicative proceeding, they compared this case to at least two precedents involving attorneys' comments on criminal cases. But in this instance, the proceeding in question was precipitated by Rokita himself: When the Indiana Medical Licensing Board convened a hearing on Dr. Bernard in May, it did so in response to a complaint from the attorney general's office.

What does Rokita say now?

"I was not found to have violated anyone's confidentiality or any laws. I was not fined. And I will continue as Indiana's duly-elected attorney general," Rokita said as he issued a lengthy statement about the outcome.

He also doubled down on his statements about Bernard, repeating them anew and saying, "As I said at the time, my words are factual."

The attorney general depicted himself as battling a number of opponents, saying the "media, medical establishment and cancel culture" had rallied around Bernard.

In response to the court's opinion, Bernard's lawyer, Kathleen DeLaney, noted that Rokita agreed that he violated the conduct rules.

"His public statements should reflect that fact and we expect a prompt and sincere apology to Dr. Bernard," DeLaney said in a statement to NPR.

Of the sworn affidavit in which he agreed to the violations, Rokita said he has "evidence and explanation for everything I said," but he added that he opted to resolve the matter in the interest of saving time and money.

The decision against Rokita doesn't specify a fine, but it requires him to pay $250 in court fees. It also mentions pending investigative costs, which state law allows the court to impose on anyone disciplined or sanctioned.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.