INDIANAPOLIS — Indiana’s attorney general violated rules of professional conduct when he made comments about a doctor who performed an abortion on a 10-year-old rape victim from Ohio, according to a court opinion filed Thursday.
The Indiana Supreme Court ruled that state Attorney General Todd Rokita “engaged in attorney misconduct” on a Fox News show in July 2022 about Dr. Caitlin Bernard, an Indianapolis obstetrician-gynecologist. The case garnered international attention after Bernard shared the story of the 10-year-old’s medication abortion with the Indianapolis Star, part of the USA TODAY Network, in the immediate aftermath of the overturning of Roe v. Wade last summer.
The opinion states that Rokita violated attorney conduct rules when he described Bernard as an “abortion activist acting as a doctor — with a history of failing to report,” during his interview on the show. Rokita will receive a public reprimand and will pay $250 to the clerk of the Indiana Supreme Court, according to the opinion.
In a statement Thursday, Rokita continued to strongly criticize Bernard and said he could have fought over his “truthful 16-word answer” on Fox but wanted to “save a lot of taxpayer money and distraction.” To resolve the complaint, Rokita said he was required to sign an affidavit “without any modifications.”
“As I said at the time, my words are factual,” Rokita said in the statement. “The (Indiana University Health) physician who caused the international media spectacle at the expense of her patient’s privacy is by her own actions an outspoken abortion activist.”
Representatives for Bernard told IndyStar Thursday that they would “let the reprimand speak for itself.”
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Indiana Attorney General Todd Rokita admitted to violations
The Indiana Supreme Court’s disciplinary commission filed charges in September alleging that Rokita violated professional conduct rules with statements about Bernard and the case of the 10-year-old Ohio girl who sought an abortion in Indiana.
The disciplinary commission investigates and prosecutes when attorneys are accused of violating Indiana courts’ rules for professional conduct. The state’s Supreme Court justices make the final determination if misconduct occurred and what discipline someone will receive.
The state’s Supreme Court’s opinion Thursday specifically found that Rokita violated rules that say a lawyer cannot make public statements about an investigation that has a likelihood of “materially prejudicing” the proceeding and that a lawyer cannot “use means that have no substantial purpose other than to embarrass, delay or burden a third person.”
Rokita admitted to both violations, according to the opinion, and the justices dismissed a third charge for violating confidentiality requirements in state law prior to filing a complaint against Bernard with the Indiana Medical Licensing Board last year.
Kathleen Clark, a law professor at the Washington University in St. Louis School of Law, said Rokita’s statement on the court’s misconduct ruling does not really acknowledge what he might have done wrong. Clark also worked as counsel for Washington D.C.’s attorney general and the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee.
“This isn’t just about a technical violation of the rules, this is about abusing his office to hurt someone,” Clark said. “There’s gravity to that that I do not see reflected in his statement released today.”
10-year-old girl sought abortion after rape
The story of the 10-year-old girl first appeared in a July 2022 IndyStar article about reduced abortion access following the U.S. Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision in June.
The 10-year-old had traveled from Ohio to Indiana in late June for abortion medication after her home state’s six-week abortion ban took effect, which did not have exceptions for children who were raped. Ohio’s abortion ban had been in effect for about two months before it faced legal challenges and was put on hold, reinstating abortion access until 22 weeks of pregnancy.
Within weeks the story received international attention and Indiana’s Republican-dominated Legislature also passed abortion restrictions. Abortion rights advocates and politicians, including President Joe Biden, used the case as a talking point for abortion debates.
Some opponents and conservatives had criticized the story, saying it was unproven. But the incident was confirmed after Gerson Fuentes, 28, was arrested and confessed to raping the Ohio girl last summer. Fuentes was sentenced to life in prison in July.
Caitlin Bernard also found to violate standards
The Thursday opinion from the Indiana Supreme Court is just another chapter in the legal saga between Rokita and Bernard.
In November 2022, Rokita asked the Indiana Medical Licensing Board to investigate whether Bernard violated professional standards by sharing the story of the 10-year-old abortion case.
The licensing board ruled earlier this year that Bernard violated privacy laws in handling the abortion patient’s information and gave her a $3,000 fine. The licensing board’s ruling in May was criticized by members of the medical community and an author of HIPAA, who said Bernard didn’t do anything illegal.
In August, Bernard said she would not challenge the licensing board’s ruling.
Rokita in September filed a lawsuit against Indiana University Health tied to Bernard and the abortion case, alleging the health care institution violated privacy laws.
IndyStar archives contributed to this report.