OPINION: Fani Willis blasts GOP move to rein in local prosecutors

Surrounded by Fulton County law enforcement officials, District Attorney Fani Willis speaks during a press conference about the RICO indictment in the celebrity home invasion ring on Monday, August 29, 2022. (Natrice Miller/ natrice.miller@ajc.com).

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Surrounded by Fulton County law enforcement officials, District Attorney Fani Willis speaks during a press conference about the RICO indictment in the celebrity home invasion ring on Monday, August 29, 2022. (Natrice Miller/ natrice.miller@ajc.com).

Republicans came into this year’s legislative session with a handful of top priorities, including a plan to rein in what they called “rogue prosecutors.”

Georgia’s most famous prosecutor, Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis, has a problem with that.

“Gov. Kemp didn’t appoint me. He didn’t do anything for me to sit in this seat,” she during an interview in her office this week. “The citizens that picked me did something for me to sit in their seat.”

Willis said she answers to the voters in Fulton County, who elected her with 72% of the vote in the 2020, not GOP leaders who have an opinion about how she does her job, including the Republican governor who called for the GOP oversight bills in the first place.

The two bills Willis is objecting to were framed this year as a way to have state oversight of a group of locally elected District Attorneys who had run afoul of GOP lawmakers — either by refusing to prosecute laws the General Assembly had passed or by getting into trouble with the law themselves.

One bill would lower the threshold to recall a prosecutor from 30% of registered voters to 2%, while another would create a panel appointed by GOP leaders with the power to remove elected DAs for “willful misconduct in office.” All other recall thresholds for elected officials would stay at 30%.

Although Willis has not been mentioned by lawmakers as one of the DAs who had gone rogue, her high-profile investigation of former President Donald Trump for possible election interference has put her crosswise with plenty of GOP officials around the state. She said the recall legislation, in particular, would take prosecutors’ focus off the the jobs they need to do.

“It would absolutely be distracting,” she said. “And should the governor now be recalled at 2%? Should the legislators now be removed at 2%? Why should that not be for every seat in this state?”

Willis is working with Republicans this year on bills to fight gangs and violent crime. She said the DA measures have nothing to do with prosecutors’ performance and everything to do with lawmakers’ politics.

“I think it’s targeting me, and maybe people with similar ideologies, and wanting to replace it for ideologies that don’t represent the majority of the state’s population,” she said. “This bill has the governor, the lieutenant governor, the Speaker of the House, all coming in and choosing the DA’s for (voters).”

Willis also said it’s no coincidence the bills are coming after Georgians elected 14 minority DAs to office in 2020, more than ever before.

“It seems to me that what they’re really saying is that there should be local control until we don’t like who the locals choose,” Willis said. “You have to respect the people that voted.”

GOP leaders clashed last year with progressive DAs when several announced they had no intention of making arrests related to the state’s newly enacted six-week abortion ban.

Other local DA’s in recent years have separately been also been indicted on criminal charges.

Just as judges have an oversight panel over them, GOP lawmakers said there had to be some recourse for a DA who wasn’t doing their jobs appropriately.

Willis said the State Bar of Georgia, existing criminal and civil laws, and ultimately each community’s voters, already serve as the oversight for local prosecutors. Anything more is just politics.

The General Assembly also already has the power to impeach District Attorneys for conduct in office, but Republicans pointed out during a floor debate Thursday that it’s a process so convoluted it’s never been used before.

“There’s only so many DAs, there’s only so many investigators, and only so many hours in a day,” Willis said. “And you have to make very difficult decisions about what your priorities are.”

Her priorities are “gangbangers,” people that shoot people, child molesters and human traffickers, she said, without mentioning the Trump investigation.

“Something else might take a backseat to doing those priorities. Does that mean that I am derelict in my duties?”

Willis’ willingness to come out swinging against Republicans in the General Assembly is a major break from the approach she’s taken over the last two years, when she looked for common ground with the GOP lawmakers who set law enforcement budgets across the state.

At a hearing last week, she clashed with GOP state Sen. Bill Cowsert after she said race is one of the primary motivations behind the effort to control DAs. She also pointedly told lawmakers that adultery was one of the many crimes on the books in Georgia her office is not prosecuting, but could.

“I’m going to stop talking before I say something I might regret,” Cowsert fired back.

I asked her if conflicts like that would hurt the working relationship she’s built with Republicans since she’s been in office.

“I don’t believe that it will be damaging,” she said. “But if Cowsert has difficulty receiving the truth, and he can no longer work with me, that’ll be something he’ll have to decide. I will work with anyone who wants to work with me on legislation that is fair and just and protects victims.”

One of Willis’ go-to partners this year and last has been state Sen. John Albers, a Republican from Roswell.

In the past, he’s publicly praised Willis for her “passion, integrity and candor.”

On Thursday, he said something nearly identical to Willis — that he’ll work with “anyone, anytime who wants to fight crime and protect victims.”

But he also called the DA oversight bills “a no-brainer” and voted for SB 92 Thursday, when it passed 32 to 24. Kemp has said he’ll sign both bills as soon as they’re on his desk.