Four Georgia DAs seek to block Republican-backed oversight panel

Augusta Judicial Circuit District Attorney Jared Williams joins other DAs in the area to file a lawsuit against the state of Georgia and commissioners in regards to Senate Bill 92 in Decatur on Wednesday, August 2, 2023. (Katelyn Myrick/

Credit: Katelyn Myrick

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Augusta Judicial Circuit District Attorney Jared Williams joins other DAs in the area to file a lawsuit against the state of Georgia and commissioners in regards to Senate Bill 92 in Decatur on Wednesday, August 2, 2023. (Katelyn Myrick/

Credit: Katelyn Myrick

Four district attorneys filed a legal challenge to block a Georgia law championed by Gov. Brian Kemp that gives the state new powers to punish local prosecutors who don’t enforce tough-on-crime crackdowns.

The lawsuit filed Wednesday challenges one of Kemp’s signature achievements this year — a Prosecuting Attorneys Qualifications Commission to sanction “rogue prosecutors” accused of neglecting their duties.

The opponents of the law, which took effect in July, say it’s a power grab that threatens the independence of the judiciary, infringes on free speech rights and forces prosecutors to hide their stances from voters.

They framed the urgent GOP drive for the measure as backlash against district attorneys who promised not to charge low-level drug offenders, enforce the state’s anti-abortion law or take “punitive approaches” to criminal justice.

“From the moment they started drafting this legislation it was clear to me they had crossed constitutional lines,” DeKalb County District Attorney Sherry Boston said in an interview.

“It’s of vital importance for district attorneys to have both independence and discretion,” Boston said. “This commission attacks our abilities as the ministers of justice to do that.”

Boston is among four district attorneys who brought the lawsuit, which was filed in Fulton County Superior Court. The others are Jonathan Adams, the top prosecutor in Butts, Lamar and Monroe counties; Cobb County District Attorney Flynn Broady; and Augusta District Attorney Jared Williams.

While the legislation passed along party lines — the sole Democrat to vote for the law has since switched to the GOP — the complaint shows the new commission remains divisive in the legal community. Adams is among several Republican prosecutors who have raised concerns about the law.

It’s one of a spate of measures Republicans adopted after a midterm campaign that focused on public safety, a theme Kemp reinforced when he declared that “far-left prosecutors are making our communities less safe” as he signed the law in May.

“Georgians in every community deserve to be safe,” Kemp, flanked by law enforcement officers, said at the ceremony. “Brave men and women in uniform are doing their part. District attorneys and prosecutors need to do theirs as well.”

Attorney General Chris Carr echoed that message on Wednesday, saying that prosecutors who have “embraced the progressive movement across the nation of refusing to enforce the law” are failing their communities.

“Like everyone else, DAs who choose to violate their oaths of office are not immune from accountability,” Carr said, “and we will vigorously defend this law in court.”

Some Democrats also see the law, known as Senate Bill 92, as retribution for Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis’ ongoing probe of former President Donald Trump’s attempt to overturn his 2020 election defeat.

Credit: Katelyn Myrick/AJC

Credit: Katelyn Myrick/AJC

The governor and other supporters were careful during debate of the measure not to bring up Willis, who has called the law a “dangerous” effort to counteract the election of a wave of Black and Hispanic prosecutors in 2020, when Georgia went from five minority district attorneys to 14.

Even so, the law’s critics said there’s nothing to stop the commission from being wielded as a political weapon against Willis or any of the state’s district attorneys or solicitors.

“This law puts every prosecutor in every judicial circuit at risk of being removed any time someone disagrees with their decision,” Boston said, adding: “A commission like this is putting its foot on the neck of each and every one of the prosecutors.”

‘Cover of night’

Georgia already allows legislators to impeach district attorneys, though those powers have rarely been invoked. There are other checks on wayward prosecutors encoded in the law, plus elections and recall provisions that give voters a chance to remove them at the ballot box.

But the law’s sponsors say existing rules guiding prosecutors don’t have sharp enough teeth. They often refer to former Paulding District Attorney Dick Donovan, a Republican who temporarily remained in office while fighting bribery charges, or Athens-Clarke District Attorney Deborah Gonzalez, a Democrat whom Kemp and his allies routinely paint as inept.

Credit: AJC file

Credit: AJC file

Under the new law, the commission will start taking complaints in October. A five-member panel will investigate the complaints and decide whether to bring formal charges, and a separate three-member panel will issue orders and opinions.

The law allows the commission to sanction or remove district attorneys for an array of causes, such as “willful misconduct” or “persistent failure” to follow the law. The complaint argues that the “vague nature” of the law leaves prosecutors uncertain how to instruct their staff to comply.

With one of the busiest offices in Georgia, Boston supervises roughly 100 attorneys who handle 4,500 felony cases each year. That’s on top of a backlog that ballooned when the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered courtrooms.

To navigate the daunting caseload, Boston said she relies on the discretion of her staff prosecutors for many decisions — while only the most serious or complicated cases are guaranteed to come before her.

“If DA Boston or her staff were to review each individual case presented to them under SB 92′s new individual-review duty,” the lawsuit said, “they would have less staff time and other resources to devote to pressing public-safety concerns in DeKalb County, such as prosecuting serious violent felonies.”

Credit: Katelyn Myrick/AJC

Credit: Katelyn Myrick/AJC

Those in less populous districts face distinct challenges, too. Adams said that bringing low-level marijuana cases to court is “rarely worth the necessary resources” because so many prospective jurors in his area are opposed to the crackdown.

But under the new law, Adams said he could be disciplined for his stance — and potentially sanctioned for not enforcing other laws on the books.

“We have a right and a need to make hard decisions regarding what is appropriate to prosecute,” Adams said. “We may not prosecute adultery, fornication or sodomy, but they are all still crimes.”

Although he’s bucking the party line by challenging the law, Adams said the new commission could one day be used against Republicans, too.

“Today, we may have conservatives and Republicans in the Governor’s Mansion and the Legislature,” he said. “But in five or 10 years, we may not. And what kind of laws may be passed then that may not best suit small rural communities?”

The lawsuit highlights fears that the commission will be weaponized by vindictive residents who are upset that their district attorneys “reject simplistic, punitive approaches” to criminal justice.

Adams is bracing for “superfluous, unsubstantial complaints” from local residents. Broady expects his refusal to enforce Georgia’s anti-abortion law has made him a target.

Credit: Katelyn Myrick

Credit: Katelyn Myrick

The plaintiffs warned the law is already forcing prosecutors to keep voters in the dark about issues they once gladly shared in public, such as their criminal justice philosophy and how they’d handle hypothetical cases.

Boston, for one, said she instructed staffers to laminate and hang a “bill of values” in their offices to promote her guidelines. But she said those sorts of written statements could come back to haunt her under the new law.

“I’ve heard from a number of DAs who have said they’re going to have to keep their policies and how they’re handling their cases silent and do it under cover of night,” she said. “Because if they write it down or speak it publicly, they subject themselves to the commission for removal.”

Staff writer Sara Gregory contributed to this article.

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