Some of Georgia’s most powerful Republicans want to create a panel that would give the state more oversight over district attorneys and make it easier for frustrated residents to recall top prosecutors.
The legislation introduced Thursday by state Reps. Houston Gaines and Joseph Gullett comes after Gov. Brian Kemp and Lt. Gov. Burt Jones called for new efforts to bring “accountability” to local prosecutors. Critics say the two bills amount to overreach.
The measures were introduced as Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis weighs whether to seek criminal charges against Donald Trump over his efforts to overturn Georgia’s 2020 election. Gaines and his allies say the proposal isn’t related to her ongoing probe of the former president.
“If a prosecutor is not doing his or her job, we need a system in state law to remove that individual from office,” said Gaines, an Athens Republican. He added: “It is past time we take on rogue prosecutors in Georgia who are putting lives in danger every single day.”
Democratic leaders say the proposal creates another unnecessary layer of government that could undermine the will of the voters.
“There is already oversight over district attorneys,” said state Sen. Elena Parent, D-Atlanta. “They have to be elected by voters. They also can be recalled by their voters. In San Francisco, voters recalled their DA when they were dissatisfied with his performance. Georgians can do the same.”
She and other Democrats have called for a different strategy that includes a reversal of permissive gun laws they say have contributed to high crime rates, along with a return to measures to divert nonviolent offenders away from costly prison beds to treatment programs.
Still, critics of the measures may face an uphill battle. Although previous versions of the legislation were bottled up, Kemp and Jones have indicated they will make the changes a priority.
Kemp, for instance, has pointedly attacked “far-left prosecutors” who he said have failed their communities. And Jones has called for a measure to bring more oversight to local prosecutors.
“It’s a lot like the JQC is right now with judges,” he said in a recent interview, referring to the Judicial Qualifications Commission that monitors the judiciary. “When we have folks who aren’t fulfilling their jobs, we need to have a mechanism to deal with it.”
Gaines and Gullett brought the proposals with two prosecutors in their districts in mind: Athens-Clarke County District Attorney Deborah Gonzalez and Dick Donovan, a former Paulding County district attorney.
Donovan, a Republican, resigned from office in January 2022 after pleading guilty to a misdemeanor charge of unprofessional conduct stemming from a sexual harassment accusation. He was sentenced to one year of probation.
Gonzalez, a Democrat who lost her state House seat to Gaines in 2018, has been a favorite target of Republicans who say she’s mismanaged her office.
Gaines said a spree of departures has created a growing “crisis” in the community. And Kemp, an Athens native, criticized Gonzalez after a judge dismissed a sexual assault indictment because prosecutors failed to meet his speedy trial demand. Her office blamed a scheduling error.
In a statement to the AJC, Gonzalez said the legislation promotes the “false idea” that there is not already oversight of prosecutors built into Georgia’s legal system.
“The proposed committee would serve to erode this system of checks and balances and directly undermine the will of the voters by moving the fate of locally elected officials out of their jurisdiction,” she said.
Republicans, for now, are pursuing a dual track.
The first measure, House Bill 229, would significantly lower the threshold for signatures required to recall a prosecutor and stipulate that a failure to review every case could be grounds to remove a district attorney or solicitor general.
It would require only 2% of registered voters in a prosecutor’s judicial circuit to force a recall election. State law now requires 30% of registered voters to trigger a recall election of local officials.
And House Bill 231 proposes a panel that could remove prosecutors who “display willful misconduct in office,” persistently fail to perform their duties, are convicted of a crime of moral turpitude or act in a way that “brings the office in disrepute.”
Under the latter measure, which passed the House the past two years but stalled in the Senate, the members of the proposed Prosecuting Attorneys Oversight Commission would be appointed by the governor, lieutenant governor and legislative leaders.
Gullett said Georgians are “begging legislators to address corrupt prosecutors.”
“We must hold them accountable for their actions to ensure the integrity of our criminal justice system,” he said.