Gov. Katie Hobbs of Arizona on Friday stripped local prosecutors of the power to criminally charge abortion providers, a move aimed at protecting abortion rights in a narrowly divided political battleground.
An executive order signed by Ms. Hobbs, a Democrat, would take authority away from elected county attorneys, a largely Republican group, and transfer it to Arizona’s attorney general, a Democrat who has vowed not to prosecute abortion providers.
Abortion-rights groups applauded the governor’s move as a “promising and welcome” measure in a state with a law banning most abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy.
Planned Parenthood of Arizona said the governor’s action would help ease fears and uncertainty among abortion providers in the state. Clinics have closed, reopened, curtailed services and lost staff in the uncertain legal landscape since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade a year ago.
But some Republican prosecutors said they were blindsided by the governor’s move, and called it a power grab that unconstitutionally swept away their authority to prosecute crimes. Local prosecutors said they were still reviewing the order, but raised the possibility of suing to block it.
“Is she going to say I can’t prosecute drugs, or homicide cases?” said Kent Volkmer, the elected prosecutor in Pinal County, a fast-growing area just south of Phoenix. “For the governor to take that authority from me and say, ‘We’re going to outsource that to the big city’ — that’s highly problematic.”
Rachel Mitchell, the county attorney in the Phoenix area, called the order an “outrageous” effort to undermine local prosecutors.
The reaction highlighted the political divide between Arizona’s new Democratic governor and attorney general, and elected Republicans in more conservative areas.
A similar dynamic has played out in Republican-led states where officials have removed powers from Democrats in blue cities, creating bitter rifts over local control in Florida, Tennessee, Wisconsin and other states.
Mr. Volkmer, a Republican, said abortion cases were a low priority, and that he generally did not want to come between women and their doctors. But he said most criminal cases belonged with local prosecutors, and said the attorney general’s office was “certainly not equipped” to handle abortion-related cases.
The effects of Ms. Hobbs’s move may be mostly symbolic. There have not been any abortion prosecutions in Arizona since Roe was struck down, legal experts said, and most counties in Arizona do not even have abortion clinics. The state’s abortion providers are clustered around Phoenix and Tucson.
Ms. Hobbs won her campaign for governor last year in part by promising to protect abortion rights and reproductive freedom, but the state’s Republican-controlled Legislature has limited what she and other Democrats can do.
Unlike the Democratic governors of Minnesota and California, who have passed new laws strengthening abortion rights in their solidly blue states, Ms. Hobbs has been mostly limited to vetoing Republican anti-abortion efforts and signing executive actions like the one on Friday.
A near-total abortion ban that was passed in the 1800s still sits on the books, despite Ms. Hobbs’s promises to call a special legislative session to repeal it. Enforcement of that law has been halted by the courts, but a state law making it a felony for doctors to perform abortions after the 15th week of pregnancy is still in effect. Doctors convicted under the law could have their medical license revoked. Pregnant women are exempted under that law.
Abortion providers say they are also subject to restrictions including a 24-hour waiting period and limits on prescribing abortion pills.
The order signed by Ms. Hobbs on Friday also said Arizona would not help other states seeking assistance in abortion prosecutions, and would oppose efforts to extradite people to face abortion-related charges in other states.
“I will not allow extreme and out of touch politicians to get in the way of the fundamental right Arizonans have to make decisions about their own bodies and futures,” Ms. Hobbs said in a statement. “I will continue to fight to expand access to safe and legal abortion in any way that I can.”