JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — Missouri Gov. Mike Parson appointed a former judge who has supported an anti-abortion pregnancy center — and been disciplined for publicly doing so — to an administrative panel that could handle a licensing dispute with the state's only abortion clinic.
The Missouri Supreme Court in 2015 reprimanded former Macon County Associate Circuit Judge Philip Prewitt for encouraging people to donate to local charities on Facebook, including Ray of Hope Pregnancy Care Ministeries, an anti-abortion nonprofit.
The Republican governor, an abortion opponent who last month signed into law one of the strictest abortion laws in the country ,on June 3 appointed Prewitt to the Administrative Hearing Commission, a panel that handles disputes between state agencies and businesses or individuals.
Lawyers for the state have argued that the commission should adjudicate a dispute between the state's only clinic performing abortions and the state health department, which is refusing to renew the clinic's abortion license. The dispute is now in St. Louis circuit court.
Prewitt has weighed in on abortion previously. He ran as a Republican for a state representative seat in 2000 and received a $250 campaign donation from Missouri Right to Life PAC. When he was serving as an associate judge in 2014, he supported Ray of Hope on his Facebook page.
"I am happy to be supporting Ray of Hope Pregnancy Center again at their fundraising dinner," the post read. "Even if you didn't attend, consider donating to this wonderful organization."
Prewitt also posted about donating to a local cancer fundraiser and local schools.
A state judicial oversight organization — the Missouri Commission on Retirement, Removal and Discipline — in 2015 found that Prewitt's Facebook posts violated a state Supreme Court rule that bans judges from abusing the "prestige of office to advance the personal or economic interests ... of others," including a rule that a judge may not "personally participate in the solicitation of funds or other fundraising activities."
The commission in court filings noted that Prewitt had no prior complaints against him, was "cooperative and truthful" during the investigation, and that in response he stopped the questionable Facebook posts.
Prewitt told The Associated Press on Monday that he doesn't see a problem with the reprimand or his past support for the pregnancy care center and from Missouri Right to Life. He said he would consider recusing himself if requested by a party in the case.
"I don't see where it would be a conflict," Prewitt told AP. "It doesn't violate the judicial rules, so I don't see how it would violate any commissioner rules either."
Parson spokesman Steele Shippy said the governor named Prewitt to the commission based on his experience as a judge and his past military service and that his stance on abortion was not a factor. He said the governor's office was aware of Prewitt's previous reprimand, but noted that the Supreme Court did not go further to suspend or revoke his license.
"Based on those qualifications, we believe that he would execute the responsibilities of commissioner appropriately," Shippy said.
Commissioners work individually, and Prewitt said cases are assigned on a rotating basis by a scheduling clerk. Three other commissioners currently serve on the panel and could also be assigned the abortion clinic case, if it ever makes it to the commission.
Prewitt lost re-election in 2018 and in December resigned early. He said he applied for an open seat on the Administrative Hearing Commission several months ago and heard back around March.
"Many months ago was I considered for the appointment, so this wasn't even an issue when I was talking to the governor's office about the appointment," he said.
Since he left his judgeship, Prewitt has continued to be active on Facebook. In February, he posted a photo of a truck with writing on the back that says: "What's the difference between a gun and a whiny liberal? A gun has only one trigger. #buildwall." He's also shared memes about vegans, atheists and a post with a photo of a woman that says, "Why is she wearing leggings?"
Parson appointed Prewitt amid a court fight between the state health department and the St. Louis Planned Parenthood clinic. The Department of Health and Senior Services has refused to renew the clinic's license, citing concerns about patient safety, "failed surgical abortions" and legal violations.
Planned Parenthood pre-emptively sued to ensure continued abortion services in the state.
In court filings, state attorneys argued that the clinic "is required to seek review of an adverse licensing decision through the Administrative Hearing Commission."
A St. Louis judge last week issued an order to keep the abortion clinic operating while a fight over the facility's license plays out in court.
St. Louis Circuit Judge Michael Stelzer also ordered the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services to decide on Planned Parenthood's application to renew its license by Friday.