Jeff Crossman wants to protect abortion rights — but needs to defeat Ohio AG Dave Yost first
An interview with the Ohio Dem. And, a Law Dork exclusive: Analysis from the state's nonpartisan Legislative Service Commission contradicts Yost's claim about Ohio's six-week abortion ban.
June 24, 2022, was Jeff Crossman’s wedding day.
Less than 20 days later, Crossman — Ohio’s Democratic candidate for state attorney general — was on the phone telling me that the state’s current attorney general, Republican Dave Yost, had not only been proven wrong in suggesting that the story of a 10-year-old rape victim being forced to leave the state to get an abortion was made up but also in his claims about the actual law behind Ohio’s six-week abortion ban.
It’s been a long three weeks and Crossman certainly faces an uphill race as a first-time statewide candidate in a state that has had few Democratic highlights in recent years, but he sounded ready to go when we spoke on the evening of July 13.
Crossman and his now-wife Pam chose the June 24 wedding day a long time ago to coincide with his grandmother’s birthday and because, he said, “We thought it would be a great day in June.”
Although Crossman did still get married that day, he called it a “gut punch” when the Supreme Court issued its ruling overturning Roe v. Wade in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization that same morning.
“Oh, my God, here we are starting our family, but others are being told that they don't have the right to start their family when they or how they choose?” Crossman told me of his thoughts during that “jarring” day. “And then, for Clarence Thomas to basically spike the football and talk about other rights he’s going to go after next.”
A Cleveland-area Democratic state representative from Parma, Crossman talked with me about his opponent, his opponent’s outrageous claims since the Dobbs ruling, what he would do differently as attorney general when it comes to protecting women and others seeking abortions, and — brass tacks — whether he can win.
Among the steps Crossman is looking at taking should he be elected Ohio’s attorney general are not defending certain laws in court — “I don’t think the Attorney General is obligated to follow laws that they firmly believe are unconstitutional.” — and not providing support to local prosecutors who want to prosecute people under harsh abortion bans — “I don’t see why I would have to prioritize using resources towards abortion-related prosecutions across the state of Ohio.”
The Q&A is below, but first, Crossman talked with me about the big story of the week — and shared some news.
“BLATANTLY AND BRAZENLY WRONG”: While Jeff Crossman was getting married, Dave Yost was filing motions in court to get Ohio’s six-week abortion ban — which had been blocked by a court before the Dobbs ruling when there remained a federal constitutional right to an abortion — put into effect.
Yost was successful in getting the ban put into effect later the same day as the Dobbs decision came down — a proud moment for the conservative officeholder.
Quickly, however, the harsh effects of the Dobbs ruling and Ohio’s restrictions were made clear in a story that first broke in Indiana: A 10-year-old girl raped in Ohio was forced to go to Indiana to get an abortion, the Indianapolis Star reported on July 1.
The story of a young child who was raped, saw a doctor in Ohio, and yet needed to travel hours away to Indiana get an abortion because she was six weeks and three days pregnant quickly became a crystallization of the cruelty that the decisions — of courts and lawmakers and governors — were unleashing. As that happened, however, some conservative opponents of abortion began suggesting that the story was made up.
Yost was one of those people. He told Fox News’s national audience on July 11 that there was not a “whisper of evidence” to support the story, throwing further doubt on the story by adding, “We don’t know who the originating doctor in Ohio was, if they even exist.”
On July 13, however, the Columbus Dispatch reported that a man had been arrested in connection with the girl’s rape. The story was not made up, it was horrible, and there was much more than a whisper of evidence.
Yost didn’t only question whether the story itself was real. He also said on Fox News that Ohio’s six-week ban “has a medical emergency exception” that would have meant that “[t]his young girl, if she exists … did not have to leave Ohio to find treatment.”
When Crossman heard that, he couldn’t believe it.
“Apparently, he didn’t even understand fully the scope of the law,” Crossman said. “When this bill was debated on the House floor — I was there, because I’m a member of the legislature — and this example came up, they were OK with it. They said, ‘That’s fine. We believe that it doesn’t matter. Even if someone’s raped, they should have the baby.’ So this is the bill they wanted, and for Yost to come out and say anything other than that is reckless and demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of the law he’s supposed to administer.”
Crossman said he was “so stunned” that Yost said something “so blatantly and brazenly wrong” that he checked with the nonpartisan Ohio Legislative Services Commission to ask for an opinion about whether “minor victims of sexual assault are able to receive abortions within Ohio after six weeks gestation.”
The answer, from Amy Archer, a research analyst with the commission, was direct: “No, Ohio’s abortion prohibition applies regardless of the circumstances of conception or the age of the mother.”
Archer provided additional information about the very limited exceptions under Ohio’s law as well:
“Ohio law prohibits a person from knowingly and purposely performing or inducing an abortion after a fetal heartbeat has been detected (typically around six weeks), unless either (1) the physician performs a medical procedure designed to or intended to prevent the death of a pregnant woman or prevent a serious risk of substantial and irreversible impairment of a major bodily function of the pregnant woman or (2) a person has performed an examination for the presence of a fetal heartbeat and the method used does not reveal a fetal heartbeat. (R.C. 2919.195.)
In addition to discussing the floor discussion on the bill, Crossman also addressed claims that the law’s first exception would allow for an abortion, noting that it creates — intentionally — an unclear situation: People like Yost can claim that language would allow a person to get an abortion under the extreme ban — and yet those medical providers involved, as Crossman put it, would need “to roll the dice on losing their license and potentially going to prison for providing a medical procedure that is not explicitly [permitted].”
Crossman didn’t sugarcoat his thoughts about Yost.
“Dave is very, let’s just say, confident in his own bullshit,” Crossman said. “And I think he never thought he’d be fact-checked.”
Law Dork: What do you see happening as a result of this law, as to the way that people are just living their lives in Ohio?
Crossman: Well, look, the Dobbs decision did not settle anything. OK? It opened a Pandora's Box of other legal problems that are going to take years to resolve. So, the only way to resolve this in my mind is to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot and let Ohio voters decide whether someone should have reproductive freedom in the state of Ohio. I think Ohioans would support that. I don't know that the extremist Republicans in the legislature would allow it to go to the ballot, or an extremist attorney general would approve the language for the ballot. But these are the sorts of obstacles and hurdles you're going to have to overcome to get this thing on the ballot.
Law Dork: Looking at those hurdles. The Ohio Democrats haven’t had a great statewide record other than then Senator Brown in recent years. How are you feeling going into this? And what evidence do you have that — look, people are going to wonder, “Does this guy have a shot of winning this race?”
Crossman: Ohio races are always competitive. It doesn't matter the year. Other than the Trump elections, which suggests the opposite of what I just said, you go back and you look at the statewide races: 2006, Democrats, Ted Strickland won. In 2010, even amid the Tea Party uprising, Ted Strickland barely lost. I mean, [Republican] Governor [John] Kasich won with 49% of the vote, not exactly a mandate. And then I'm going to conveniently toss out the 2014 election when our gubernatorial candidate, let’s just say, didn’t have a driver’s license and kind of sank the whole ticket. [Editor’s note: This is real.] Then you get to 2018, DeWine won with 50.2% of the vote. So we're not talking about, this huge Republican state here with broad mandates from the populace, like you might see in other more ruby-red states. Ohio, to me, has always been a turnout state. So we expect elections to be competitive, and we expect to compete in the election this year. That’s even before Roe v. Wade was overturned.
Law Dork: Do you have confidence in the other people on the ticket? I mean, are you all working together?
Crossman: Yeah, we're working in a coordinated way. And, look, I like the contrast our ticket provides versus theirs. Tim Ryan is running a very pro-worker campaign very much like Sherrod Brown is. I’m running a very similar campaign. Nan Whaley is a nice contrast with Mike DeWine, particularly on women's issues, particularly on gun safety issues. And then my race against Yost, which is a very pro-worker, anti-corruption platform.
What we’re seeing in Ohio is should be really alarming to the rest of the country — the gerrymandering to keep Republicans in power. Ohio has been a rigged state for the last decade, which is why, in two succeeding election cycles, Ohio voters overwhelmingly approved a redistricting process that should have delivered a bipartisan, nonpolitical method of devising state and congressional districts. The Republicans refused to follow that process. And this is the kind of corruption you get in Ohio. This is the kind of extremist behavior you get in Ohio. And I think, at the end of the day, it’s out of step with Ohio.
Law Dork: Assuming that you don’t have legislative support, if you win, what steps are you ready to take as attorney general to help protect the right to an abortion for those people who are seeking abortions despite Ohio’s laws?
Crossman: I get this question a lot, by the way. And it’s a good question. It's a fair question. I don’t think the Attorney General is obligated to follow laws that they firmly believe are unconstitutional. You don’t have to defend those laws in court. So if they’re challenged, and there’s a valid basis for challenging those laws on equal protection grounds, for example, then I think the Attorney General can offer their opinion. The attorney general is the attorney is the attorney for the state of Ohio. It’s not the attorney for the legislature. It’s not the attorney for the governor. It has to represent the best interests of all Ohioans.
And so that’s the sort of tack I'm going to be taking as Attorney General. I’m not going to just be beholden to what the Ohio legislature says or what the governor directs, even if it’s a Democratic governor.
Law Dork: Have you thought anything about how your office would work with the prosecutors? Because obviously, there are certainly some prosecutors in Ohio who are going to want to enforce abortion restrictions as much as they can.
Crossman: Yeah, I can’t prevent a local prosecutor from enforcing the law, right? But I don’t have to prioritize providing supportive resources for prosecutions along these lines, either. That’s prosecutorial discretion. That’s the discretion of the Attorney General’s Office to direct their resources in the way they see fit. And, the Attorney General’s Office oversees the BCI, Bureau of Criminal Investigations, and they’re already charged with a lot of public safety work, and their resources are already taxed to the max. So I don’t see why I would have to prioritize using resources towards abortion-related prosecutions across the state of Ohio. I could choose otherwise.
I also already said I will commit to honoring local prosecution’s decisions to not prosecute. A lot of prosecutors across the state have said they won’t dedicate any resources or make this a priority. If that’s the case, I’m not going to accept jurisdiction and supersede or override a local prosecutor’s discretion.
Law Dork: Has there been any discussion in Ohio, as there has in other states, about questions of trying to prevent travel out of state or to prosecute people for activity out of state?
Crossman: I haven’t heard anything in terms of formal bills being proposed. What I have experienced as a legislator in Ohio is that whatever terrible ideas somebody thinks about, Ohio legislators and the Republican caucus, say, “Hold my beer, watch this shit.” So I would imagine that this is already being discussed, contemplated, proposed among themselves, and I fully expect them to pursue that. If Texas or Florida do it, Ohio is bound to do it, because if they’re Republicans, they look up to them.
Law Dork: It’s sort of redundant, based on what you’ve said, but — you obviously wouldn’t support that legislation. What, as Attorney General, what would you try to do in regards to legislation like that, if it were to be passed?
Crossman: Well, I would not support that in court. If that law, if that were to pass in Ohio, it would be immediately challenged in court. OK? And I would offer an opinion that I think that violates the Privileges and Immunities Clause of the U.S. Constitution, because it prevents and inhibits travel across states. I think it’s an open question. It’s a question that’s ultimately going to get resolved by the U.S. Supreme Court, as to whether or not someone could travel across state lines to secure an abortion.
But I’m going to fight tooth and nail because I think it’s the right thing to do to allow people the freedom of movement to seek whatever medical care they choose to across state lines without interference from state.
That also means not allowing people to utilize data from people’s phones or browser histories, applications on their telephones, things like that, to find out where people are looking to travel or find out whether they’re contemplating an abortion because that’s incredibly intrusive and violative of people’s privacy rights.
Law Dork: Do you think that there’s any Ohio constitutional provision that would provide protection against that that would go beyond federal protections?
Crossman: Well, there’s a case currently being litigated in Ohio, in the Ohio Supreme Court now, that raises this very question, pointing to specific language in the Ohio Constitution that the petitioners believe actually provides more protection than the U.S. Constitution does on this issue. [Editor’s note: Here is the Ohio Supreme Court case docket in the case.] Dave Yost has already opposed that and has moved to dismiss that case in the Ohio Supreme Court.
This interview has been condensed for space and clarity.
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This paragraph, containing more information from the July 13 interview, was added in a 4:30 p.m. July 14 update.