Republicans demand oversight of prosecutors amid Trump probe

Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis opposes proposals to create a new state board that could punish or oust district attorneys. She frames the measures as part of a broader effort to retaliate against her and other prosecutors representing Democratic strongholds. (Natrice Miller/ natrice.miller@ajc.com).

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

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

Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis opposes proposals to create a new state board that could punish or oust district attorneys. She frames the measures as part of a broader effort to retaliate against her and other prosecutors representing Democratic strongholds. (Natrice Miller/ natrice.miller@ajc.com).

The Georgia House approved a measure to create a new state board that could punish or oust district attorneys, the latest step in an ongoing campaign by Republicans to exert oversight over prosecutors they see as skirting their duties.

The measure passed the House 98-75 on Monday over the objections of Democrats and prominent prosecutors. Among them is Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis, who is leading an ongoing probe of Donald Trump and has framed the proposals as racist and reactionary.

Republicans have rallied around the overhaul as a way to rein in “rogue prosecutors” who they see as ineffective or inept. Supporters often bring up liberal district attorneys who have declined to enforce low-level drug offenses and other violations.

“The purpose behind this has been distorted,” said Republican state Rep. Houston Gaines, R-Athens. He added, “Lives truly are at stake.”

State Rep. Houston Gaines, R-Athens, has proposed legislation that Republicans see as a way to rein in “rogue prosecutors” who have declined to enforce low-level drug offenses and other violations. (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

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Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

Intertwined in the debate is Willis, who is weighing whether to bring charges against Trump and his allies for meddling in the 2020 election.

While sponsors of the measure and a similar bill that passed the Georgia Senate say her probe has nothing to do with the legislation — and previous versions have indeed been debated for years — Willis frames it as part of a broader effort to retaliate against her and other prosecutors representing Democratic strongholds.

“I think it’s targeting me and maybe people with similar ideologies,” Willis said in a recent interview, “and wanting to replace it for ideologies that don’t represent the majority of the state’s population.”

Lt. Gov. Burt Jones, left, and Gov. Brian Kemp, center, are among the powerful Republicans who put legislation increasing oversight of prosecutors on the fast track. (Arvin Temkar/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

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Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

Powerful Republicans have put it on the fast track. The effort is backed by both Gov. Brian Kemp and Lt. Gov. Burt Jones, who served as a “fake” elector for Trump and is a potential target of the Willis probe. Nearly two dozen prosecutors recently signed a letter backing the creation of the panel.

“Prosecutors are not legislatures. We do not create laws. We seek justice for violations of Georgia’s laws. We believe prosecutors that decline to enforce a provision of law or an entire body of law go too far,” states the letter, signed by a group of mostly Republican prosecutors, which said they have a duty to assess each case by its merits.

“This is not appropriate prosecutorial discretion because there is no consideration as to the facts and circumstances of the specific case,” it added.

The bills also have become a favorite of far-right figures aiming to sully Willis’ probe. U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Rome has encouraged Republicans to back the measures, and Trump praised the legislative proposals in a post Sunday on his social media platform.

‘The people elected us’

Under House Bill 231, members of the newly created five-member commission would be appointed by the Georgia Supreme Court.

The panel would be empowered to investigate and punish the state’s 50 district attorneys and solicitors general for a range of violations, including “willful misconduct” in office. And backers say the panel would pursue prosecutors on both sides of the aisle.

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

Opponents of the measure, who include almost all Democrats in the chamber, said there are already layers of accountability baked into the law, including oversight by the State Bar of Georgia and a little-used provision that allows the General Assembly to remove prosecutors.

They warned of creeping efforts to weaken local control, including a separate measure that has so far failed to gain traction that would significantly lower the number of signatures needed to recall a district attorney.

Opponents of legislation that would increase oversight of Georgia prosecutors, such as state Rep. Shea Roberts, shown speaking to House Minority Leader James Beverly, say there are already layers of accountability baked into the law, including oversight by the State Bar of Georgia and a little-used provision that allows the General Assembly to remove prosecutors. “Why are we spending taxpayer money to create another level of government when there are already provisions to address prosecutorial oversight?” Roberts asked. “This is dangerous territory.”(Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

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Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

“Why are we spending taxpayer money to create another level of government when there are already provisions to address prosecutorial oversight?” Democratic state Rep. Shea Roberts asked. “This is dangerous territory.”

State Rep. Mesha Mainor was the only Democrat to speak in favor of HB 231. Mainor, a victim of stalking, criticized unnamed prosecutors for being “numb” to cases of violence and abuse against women.

”Prosecutors can silence people’s voice from ever being heard. How would you feel as a crime victim?” the Atlanta legislator asked. “Victims don’t care about party affiliation. They want help.”

The effort’s Republican supporters often invoke recent stories of disgraced prosecutors, including former Paulding County District Attorney Dick Donovan, a Republican who stepped down from office after pleading guilty to a misconduct charge.

Another impetus for sponsors is Athens-Clarke County District Attorney Deborah Gonzalez, who has suffered an exodus of rank-and-file attorneys since she took office. She’s also among a growing group of liberal prosecutors who decline to bring charges for certain drug offenses.

From the floor of the House, Gaines listed a string of serious offenses that he said were dropped because of the “incompetence” of Gonzalez.

In an interview, Gonzalez called the bills an “overstep where the Legislature is coming in and trying to undo the will of the people.”

“The people elected us and we are doing what they wanted,” Gonzalez said. “It might not be what the legislators would agree with, but that’s not their call.”

Staff columnist Patricia Murphy contributed to this article.

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