OPINION: DA Sherry Boston leading the charge against Georgia’s DA oversight law

Dekalb County District Attorney Sherri Boston says she will not prosecute abortions

Dekalb County District Attorney Sherri Boston says she will not prosecute abortions

As one of his last acts in office in January of 2011, outgoing Republican Gov. Sonny Perdue appointed Sherry Boston, then a local criminal defense attorney, as DeKalb County’s new solicitor general. With his staff packing up the last of his office items and boxes piled high, Perdue swore Boston into her new role overseeing misdemeanor offenses in one of Georgia’s largest counties.

Now more than a decade later, Boston is DeKalb’s district attorney, leading a bipartisan group of prosecutors suing the state of Georgia over a new law pitched by Republicans as a way to rein in “rogue” prosecutors around the state who fail to enforce state laws.

Senate Bill 92, which Gov. Brian Kemp championed early this year and signed in May, created a new state-appointed commission to investigate, sanction, and even remove locally elected District Attorneys. District attorneys including Fulton County’s Fani Willis, balked at the time, calling the law racist.

“In 2020, we went from having five district attorneys that were minorities to 14 that were minorities, which is historic for any state in the United States,” Willis told a Senate panel. “Let’s be even more clear than that. Those district attorneys now represent the majority of the constituents in the state of Georgia.”

In an interview this week, Boston said she decided to sue the state of Georgia over the new commission as soon as Kemp made it clear in early January that he wanted to see it happen.

“When a governor signals that this is their priority, you’re going to see his party make it happen,” Boston said, “So at that moment, I said, this is done. I’ve got to be prepared for what happens next.”

What happened next was a contentious debate at the General Assembly, with Republicans accusing progressive district attorneys of dereliction of duty for, among other things, declaring they would not bring prosecutions against residents under the state’s new six-week abortion ban.

At the same time, Democratic critics warned the law was a cover to oust Willis if she indicted former President Donald Trump for election interference. Although Republicans never mentioned Willis in the debate, the same top Senate Republicans who pushed the bill through to passage filed a complaint against Willis as soon as the commission was created in October.

But the commission is not yet functioning and the state Supreme Court recently told lawmakers it may not even have the authority to write its rules. Nonetheless, Boston and her fellow plaintiff prosecutors are pushing to keep the commission from ever operating at all.

“The role of the DA, if we continue down this pathway, will be undermined and it shouldn’t be” she said. “We are constitutional officers. We hold a very special role within our communities and we have to uphold the sanctity of that role.”

When prosecutors fail in their jobs, the state bar can sanction them, she argued, including with reforms she helped put into the system. Voters can also oust them, as they did to Boston’s predecessor in DeKalb. And in extreme cases, District attorneys can be arrested and prosecuted by authorities.

“But we all have to have the ability to serve our communities,” she said. “And we have to take politics out of it.”

Although Boston was among the district attorneys who announced she would not prosecute cases under the state’s new abortion law, she does not otherwise fit into Republicans’ “rogue DA” mold.

She grew up in Baltimore County, Maryland, with a school teacher mother and machinist father, where they were the only Black family in an all-white neighborhood. Her childhood was “rooted in faith and family,” with bible study Wednesday nights and church and youth group all day Sunday.

After college at Villanova University and law school at Emory University, she began a career as a criminal defense attorney, when she was eventually tapped by Perdue to take on the role of prosecutor.

She decided to challenge incumbent District Attorney Robert James in 2016.

“I wasn’t happy with how my community felt about the criminal justice system and about the DA’s office,” she said. “And I said, you know what, I have the ability to change that.”

As district attorney, she oversees a staff of nearly 300 attorneys, investigators and support staff. Her Twitter feed features the daily convictions her office staff secures for the serious violent crimes happening in the county, murders, rapes, gang activity, and more.

“Knowing that I can be a small part of someone seeking justice and helping to keep our community safe is what keeps me doing the work. It’s never going to be easy,” she said. The biggest challenge she has right now is the cases where the victims are children and the perpetrators are children.

“When you have a 15-year-old killing another 15-year-old… there’s no explanation. Those things keep me up at night.”

But those are the very decisions Boston and others have said prosecutors should be focused on, not the decisions of a state oversight commission fielding complaints from lawmakers.

District attorneys have raised practical concerns about the new law, including how it would apply to the work of the many assistant district attorneys and staff attorneys, and the question of who would pay the legal fees for prosecutors to defend themselves during an inquiry launched by potentially adversarial lawmakers.

But even progressives are not united in their opinion that SB 92 is unconstitutional or that district attorneys should not have a specific mechanism to review their conduct.

Georgia State Law professor Eric Segall called the bill “terrible” and said it never should have been passed. But he said that doesn’t make the law unconstitutional.

“I think District Attorneys should have enormous discretion,” he said. “But do I think they should have 100% discretion? I’m not sure, that’s a hard issue,” he said.

David Dreyer, a former Democratic state representative, is now the attorney representing Boston and her fellow DAs in their challenge to the law. He said they’ll press their case as long as they need to. But it took Boston’s willingness to lead the charge.

“It is easy to want to watch what’s happening and hope others will take the lead,” he said. “It’s not easy to stand up with courage and I think Sherry Boston has done that.”

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