Gov. Brian Kemp could soon sign a measure to create a state board with powers to investigate, punish or even oust local district attorneys as Republicans seek sweeping oversight over prosecutors they accuse of skirting their duties.
The House voted 97-77 on Monday to approve legislation to create the panel, and the Senate followed suit. Kemp and other GOP leaders have advocated for the bill to sanction “rogue prosecutors” they see as ineffective or inept.
The overhaul was approved over the objections of top state Democrats and prominent district attorneys who are concerned the legislation would allow prosecutors to be removed for broad reasons, such as “willful misconduct” and “persistent failure” to follow the law.
Among the leading critics is Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis, who has framed the proposal as racist and retaliatory. Willis’ allies see it as retribution for her ongoing probe into whether former President Donald Trump violated state laws by meddling with the 2020 election.
“Whether intended or not, the majority of the world” will see it as a reaction to the investigation of Trump, said state Rep. Tanya Miller, an Atlanta Democrat and former prosecutor. She called it a “power grab by the majority to usurp the will of the voters.”
Supporters of Senate Bill 92 say it has nothing to do with Willis’ investigation and note that key Democrats backed a similar measure several years ago. They instead point to a series of prosecutors from both parties who either resigned from office or face scrutiny of their conduct.
The measure is expected to soon become law. Kemp and Lt. Gov. Burt Jones have both endorsed the idea, and nearly two dozen prosecutors recently signed a letter backing the creation of the panel.
Both the House and Senate previously passed versions of the measure, and the latest proposal is a compromise that hashes out minor differences.
Indeed, it is Athens-Clarke County District Attorney Deborah Gonzalez — and not Willis — who has emerged as a prime example for supporters of the overhaul. Her name is frequently invoked by Republicans who say she’s neglected her office and allowed serious crimes to go unpunished.
“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.”
Her critics point to a recent legal action targeting Gonzalez that includes a letter signed by four local judges who plead for her help with rather mundane legal matters, such as providing discovery and witness lists and coordinating with law enforcement.
“With so many cases waiting to be tried, it is imperative that the court not be further delayed by the state’s lack of preparation and/or failure to follow proper procedures,” the letter states.
Credit: File photo
Credit: File photo
The lawsuit points to other crises within the office, such as an exodus of staff prosecutors and a spate of cases against serious offenders that were dismissed, some on grounds of violating speedy trial rules.
Gonzalez told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution 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 an 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.”
Under the measure, members of a newly created five-member commission would be charged with investigating complaints and bringing formal charges. A three-member hearing panel has authority to issue disciplinary orders and advisory opinions.
The panel would be empowered to investigate and punish the state’s 50 district attorneys and solicitors general for a range of violations.
Opponents said there’s already oversight of prosecutors, including laws that allow voters to recall local officials and a little-used provision that allows the General Assembly to impeach prosecutors. They warned of creeping efforts to weaken local control.
Credit: Miguel Martinez
Credit: Miguel Martinez
Democratic state Rep. Stacey Evans chastised Republicans for a revamp that’s “stepping all over elected officials.” Her ally, state Rep. Dar’shun Kendrick, dubbed the measure a “prosecutorial overthrow” bill.
“We have so many other priorities in this state,” said the Lithonia Democrat. “Trying to tell duly elected officials what to do shouldn’t be one of them.”
The lone Democrat to back the measure was state Rep. Mesha Mainor, who said the path to removing an inept prosecutor was too onerous. She said other elected officials have layers of accountability and that prosecutors should, too.
“Why is it a bad thing for someone to give oversight?” Mainor asked. “The only people who don’t like that are the prosecutors. But what about the citizens?”
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Credit: Ben Hendren for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution