Georgia DAs could be punished or ousted under new law

Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

Gov. Brian Kemp signed a measure into law Friday to create a state commission with powers to investigate, sanction or oust local prosecutors, part of an intensifying campaign by state Republicans to punish district attorneys they see as soft on crime.

The second-term governor was one of the chief advocates for the new Prosecuting Attorneys Qualifications Commission, which was approved mostly along party lines by supporters who cited embarrassing examples of “rogue prosecutors” they say neglected their duties.

“Georgians in every community deserve to be safe,” Kemp said at a signing ceremony at the Chatham County Sheriff’s Office in Savannah. “Brave men and women in uniform are doing their part. District attorneys and prosecutors need to do theirs as well.”

It was signed into law by Kemp despite objections from Democrats and prominent prosecutors who view it as a power grab by empowering a new panel to punish or remove district attorneys for broad reasons, such as “willful misconduct” or “persistent failure” to follow the law.

It’s one of several tough-on-crime measures adopted by Republicans after a midterm campaign that focused on public safety, a theme Kemp echoed when he said Friday that “far-left prosecutors are making our communities less safe.”

And it comes as a growing number of left-leaning district attorneys indicate they won’t seek charges against low-level drug offenders or prosecute violations of the state’s anti-abortion law.

One of the sharpest critics of the new law is Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis, who has framed the proposal as racist and retaliatory after voters elected a diverse bloc of prosecutors in 2020.

Some Democrats also see it as retribution for Willis’ ongoing probe of then-President Donald Trump’s attempt to overturn his 2020 election defeat in Georgia, even though supporters of Senate Bill 92 have carefully avoided invoking the investigation.

Instead, the law’s Republican supporters have consistently pointed to other current and former prosecutors from both parties who have faced charges of misconduct or accusations of ineptitude.

The most frequent example they cite is Deborah Gonzalez, a liberal district attorney who won office in Kemp’s hometown of Athens with a promise to bring a more progressive approach to the job.

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Her name is frequently brought up in anger and frustration by Republicans who say she’s neglected her duties, missed court deadlines, allowed an exodus of staffers to bolt and let serious crimes to go unpunished. She’s the target of a legal action seeking sanctions.

“There’s issue after issue after issue,” state Rep. Houston Gaines, an Athens Republican, said of Gonzalez. “The whole point of the bill is to restore public safety in places where you have rogue district attorneys who aren’t doing their job.”

Gonzalez said she’s being made into a punching bag for vengeful Republicans upset by her progressive approach, which includes a refusal to prosecute low-level drug violations and truancy offenses, along with her objection to state limits on abortion.

She called the legislation part of a “broader, politically motivated campaign to undermine prosecutors who have been elected by their communities to pursue smart justice that moves away from the failed ‘tough-on-crime’ strategies of the past.”

State law already allows legislators to impeach district attorneys, though those powers have rarely been invoked. Critics of the legislation say there are other checks on wayward prosecutors encoded in the law, plus elections to give voters a chance to remove them at the ballot box.

They warned of creeping efforts to weaken local control, as well as new threats to the principle of prosecutorial discretion, which empowers local authorities to decide which cases they should bring to trial.

Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

“We have so many other priorities in this state,” said state Rep. Dar’shun Kendrick, a Lithonia Democrat. “Trying to tell duly elected officials what to do shouldn’t be one of them.”

Mariah Parker, a former Athens-Clarke County commissioner and anti-poverty advocate, called the law a part of a “national, coordinated right-wing attack on democracy and democratic rights” that mirrors initiatives to punish prosecutors in Florida, Missouri and other Republican-led states.

“The governor cannot claim to care about public safety while underfunding education, health care and housing — all proven to foster safer communities — in budget after budget,” Parker said. “This is about locking up Black people and locking us out of electing our own leaders.”

Nearly two dozen public interest organizations signed a letter opposing SB 92, calling it a ”highly-partisan measure that takes away the voices of Georgians who have cast their vote for the individuals they want overseeing how the criminal legal system works in their community.”

But the measure’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 involving a female staffer before stepping down.

“There are Republican problems and there are Democrat problems,” said state Rep. Joseph Gullett, R-Acworth. “But this is nonpartisan in my mind.”

Under the measure, the commission launches in July and will start taking complaints in October. A five-member panel will investigate the complaints and decide whether to bring formal charges. A separate three-member panel will issue disciplinary orders and advisory opinions.

Kemp, who embraced the initiative shortly after his reelection win, said Friday he was fed up with “far-left prosecutors” who let “criminals off the hook.”

“As hardworking law enforcement officers routinely put their lives on the line to investigate, confront, and arrest criminal offenders,” Kemp said, “I won’t stand idly by as they’re met with resistance from rogue or incompetent prosecutors who refuse to uphold the law.”