Hamilton County judge scolded for not allowing a woman to drive to Atlanta for an abortion she has a legal right to

Sessions Court Judge Lila Statom sits on the bench on July 7, 2016.

A Hamilton County Criminal Court judge sent a 23-year-old pregnant woman's request to travel to Atlanta for an abortion back to the judge who rejected it with a stern message attached.

In a 10-page rebuke of General Sessions Court Judge Lila Statom issued Monday, Tom Greenholtz questioned whether Statom abused her judicial power and injected personal beliefs into her decision last week.

"Whatever personal concerns may be present, judges and courts are never permitted to substitute their own personal views for the requirements of the law," wrote Greenholtz, adding that although he prefers alternatives to abortion, the procedure remains protected from undue burdens by the government. "This is the burden and responsibility of those entrusted with the faithful execution of the state's judicial power."

photo Judge Tom Greenholtz speaks during a hearong on April 27, 2018.

He sent the case back to Statom and suggested she reach a new conclusion quickly, otherwise the woman's case could "raise significant constitutional issues" with her ongoing pregnancy.

But after Statom got the case back Monday, she rejected evidence that would've helped resolve the case, said the woman's Chattanooga attorney, David Barrow. So Barrow drove the woman to Atlanta on Wednesday to get the procedure.

Statom, reached Wednesday night, said she could not comment on Greenholtz's order or personal views since the issue is pending before her again.

The issue first arose when the woman, who was 10-11 weeks pregnant with twins, was accepted into Statom's Mental Health Court program in February after pleading guilty to theft under $1,000, domestic assault and failure to appear charges in Sessions Court. Police and court records show the woman, who will not be named to protect her privacy, was previously ordered to attend Johnson Mental Health Center and came from a home that police routinely visited for disturbance calls. She has been on house arrest, outfitted with a GPS monitor since February and needed the procedure, Barrow said.

Court documents show that on March 7 the woman asked for permission to leave the state while on house arrest to get an abortion. But Statom denied the request, listing two reasons in an order filed the next day.

First, Statom said, the woman had been unreliable on house arrest so far. She cited an incident from February where she gave the woman permission to visit her mother in a local hospital. Though the woman returned, she didn't turn in proper documentation of that visit, Statom wrote.

Second, Statom said, the woman never told her she was pregnant or had an abortion appointment scheduled when she pleaded guilty and entered Mental Health Court. If the woman had revealed her plan to go out of state, Statom said, "this court would not have accepted her plea."

But those reasons were arbitrary and violated the woman's constitutional right to an abortion, Barrow argued in an appeal to Criminal Court. After receiving the appeal from the lower Sessions Court, Greenholtz said Statom's reasons, if true, were problematic and potentially ran afoul of ethics rules that have previously gotten judges in other states suspended.

Abortion is constitutionally protected medical care under the U.S. Constitution. Tennessee law also protects abortion but has a ban on the procedure after 20 weeks into the pregnancy.

In his order, Greenholtz addressed both of Statom's reasons for denial. Branches of government are supposed to place the "least restrictive" measures possible on a constitutional right, he wrote. So if Statom was concerned about the woman being unreliable and leaving the state, she could have addressed it with a GPS monitor or a state escort instead of a complete denial, Greenholtz wrote.

As for her second reason, Greenholtz wrote that he didn't believe Statom would reject the woman's plea "simply because of the petitioner's pregnancy or its termination." For if that were the case, Greenholtz said, she would likely violate judicial ethics. Greenholtz cited a 2001 case where an Ohio judge was suspended for six months for telling a defendant that she would not receive probation in a case if she intended to get an abortion.

Since 1993, Chattanooga women seeking abortion have had to travel elsewhere after the building housing the Chattanooga Women's Clinic on Vance Road was purchased by the Pro-Life Majority Coalition of Chattanooga during bankruptcy proceedings. The coalition then sold half of the building's space to AAA Women's Services to house that group's pregnancy resource center and abortion alternatives counseling service, newspaper archives show.

Present-day options across the region are limited as debate continues at the highest levels of Tennessee government about new possible abortion restrictions.

In December 2018, Planned Parenthood, the only abortion provider left in Nashville, suspended its services and began referring patients hundreds of miles away to clinics in Knoxville and Memphis. And on March 7, the Tennessee House of Representatives passed a bill that would ban abortions after a fetal heartbeat is detected, though it still needs to make it through the state Senate.

"Kentucky is down to one [abortion clinic], Mississippi is down to one, Arkansas is down to two. That region is very under-served and so it's not surprising that someone would need or want to go to Atlanta, which really is a haven," said Alexa Kolbi-Molinas, a staff attorney with the ACLU's Reproductive Freedom Project.

Ultimately, Greenholtz did not issue a decision in the 23-year-old woman's case, finding that Statom's order wasn't permanent. He sent the woman's case back to her and suggested Statom reach a new outcome that isn't "unreasonably or significantly delayed."

But Barrow said he feared the case would take too long after he brought Statom documentation of the hospital visit to her mother. The documentation was timesheets with the woman's initials showing when she entered and left the facility, Barrow said. But Statom called the timesheets "insufficient" and suggested they get video proof from the facility, Barrow said.

Following that, Barrow said, he called and left a message with the woman's probation officer when they left Chattanooga on Wednesday and when they returned.

They were going to a medical appointment in Atlanta, Barrow said he told them.

Contact staff writer Zack Peterson at zpeterson@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6347. Follow him on Twitter @zackpeterson918.