Top Senate Republicans seek to reprimand Fani Willis over Trump charges

Georgia Senate leaders ask new state panel to launch investigation into Fulton’s top prosecutor

Georgia Senate Republicans filed a formal complaint to punish Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis after she sought charges against former President Donald Trump under a new law aimed at sanctioning “rogue” prosecutors.

The complaint contends Willis “improperly cherry-picked cases to further her personal political agenda” and asks the newly formed Prosecuting Attorneys Qualification Commission to initiate an investigation and take “appropriate measures” to sanction her.

“The integrity of our justice system is at stake, and the trust of the community in the District Attorney’s Office has been severely eroded,” states the complaint, which a group of eight state senators submitted hours after the law took effect Oct. 1.

The Republicans don’t specifically mention Trump in the complaint, but they sought to link a spate of deaths in the Fulton County Jail to Willis’ decision to “empanel a special grand jury to investigate her political adversaries” amid a yearslong backlog of cases.

Willis, who has criticized the law as racist and retaliatory, declined to comment through a spokesman. But she has long said that she can balance the high-profile trials in the Trump case with the other demands of her office.

The complaint sharpened an already deep rift over Trump among state Republicans.

Gov. Brian Kemp, a chief sponsor of the law, has repeatedly said there’s no evidence Willis should face any sanctions by the commission for bringing the indictment against Trump and his allies alleging they participated in a “criminal enterprise” to overturn the 2020 presidential election in Georgia.

Kemp, however, has criticized the timing of the charges.

“I haven’t seen anything that she has done that has broken the law or the procedures that we have. And I’ve been very honest with people about that,” Kemp said in a recent interview. “It may be a political action she’s taken in some ways, with timing and other things, but it doesn’t mean it’s illegal.”

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp was the chief supporter of a measure to create an oversight panel for prosecutors -- something some allies of Donald Trump hope to use to punish Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis after she brought an indictment against the former president. But Kemp has said he has seen no evidence that the Democratic prosecutor should merit the panel's scrutiny. (Arvin Temkar/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

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Credit: TNS

But the GOP-controlled state Senate has forcefully broken from that approach. Senate leaders encouraged their constituents to file complaints with the commission against Willis shortly after she announced the indictment in August.

And last week, Senate Republicans launched a probe into dangerous conditions at the Fulton County Jail that is expected to scrutinize Willis’ handling of the backlog of cases that worsened during the coronavirus pandemic.

The document, reviewed Monday by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, was filed by a group that included Senate Majority Leader Steve Gooch and state Sen. Jason Anavitarte, another high-ranking Republican in the chamber.

The complaint contends that Willis has “prioritized cases that align with her political party’s interests” rather than on the merits of each case. And it invokes the 10 inmates who have died in Fulton County custody in the past year.

A complaint eight Republican state senators have filed with Georgia's new Prosecuting Attorneys Qualification Commission aims to link problems at the Fulton County Jail, including 10 inmate deaths this year, with District Attorney Fani Willis'  decision to “empanel a special grand jury to investigate her political adversaries. (Hyosub Shin/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

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“Her selective prosecution has resulted in dangerous, deadly, and unjust overcrowding in the local jail and an unprecedented backlog of cases in the judicial system,” the complaint states. “These consequences are unacceptable and detrimental to our state.”

It’s unlikely the commission will issue any sanctions. In a Sept. 30 statement, the commission said it wouldn’t consider any conduct that took place before its rules were approved by the Georgia Supreme Court. That review is still pending.

Democrats immediately accused Senate Republicans of political theater to subvert the rule of law.

”Fani Willis is doing her job in upholding the rule of law. Trump and his 18 co-defendants were indicted by a grand jury for trying to overturn election results,” state Sen. Nabilah Islam Parkes said, adding that she was “deeply troubled by any attempt to interfere in lawful prosecutions for political purposes.”

Georgia State University law professor Clark Cunningham, who has written extensively on constitutional law, said the complaint shouldn’t go anywhere.

“The law is intended to set a fairly high bar for such an extraordinary intervention,” Cunningham said. “And a complaint like this seems to be an inappropriate use of the oversight process.”


Though the indictment has reverberated throughout the Gold Dome, the charges have particularly rocked the Georgia Senate.

State Sen. Shawn Still, a first-term Republican, was charged in connection with his role as a GOP elector after he signed a false certificate claiming Trump won Georgia in the 2020 presidential election. Lt. Gov. Burt Jones, the chamber’s president and also a Trump elector, could also be indicted. Both have said they did nothing wrong.

Many rank-and-file Republicans have faced immense pressure from Trump allies to reprimand Willis, even if it’s symbolic.

Some of the furor has been stoked by state Sen. Colton Moore, who has singled out his GOP colleagues for refusing to back his politically impossible and possibly illegal push to impeach Willis.

Two of the complaint’s supporters — state Sens. Shelly Echols and Bo Hatchett — were repeatedly targeted on social media by Moore, who was ousted from the GOP Senate caucus this month. Hatchett said the “most alarming thing, for me, is the selective prosecution.”

State Sen. Bo Hatchett, who joined a complaint filed against Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis with Georgia's new Prosecuting Attorneys Qualification Commission, said "the most alarming thing" he's seen in Willis' conduct in office "is the selective prosecution.” He added: “She is selecting politically motivated cases to go after, while at the same time neglecting a huge backlog that’s unsustainable and dangerous. It appears that she has neglected her duties as a prosecutor while focusing on a few politically motivated cases.” Ben Gray for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Ben Gray for the AJC

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Credit: Ben Gray for the AJC

“She is selecting politically motivated cases to go after while at the same time neglecting a huge backlog that’s unsustainable and dangerous,” Hatchett said. “It appears that she has neglected her duties as a prosecutor while focusing on a few politically motivated cases.”

The other Republicans who joined the complaint are state Sens. Clint Dixon, Russ Goodman, Chuck Payne and Sam Watson.

Dixon told the AJC he organized the complaint against Willis to “hold her accountable to ensure public safety is always prioritized above politics.”

“Instead of doing her job — to give everyone their day in court — Willis has decided to take center stage in political theater,” he said. “She’s raising her profile and celebrity instead of prosecuting those accused of murder, rape and other crimes.”

Key ruling

The three-page complaint was filed shortly after a Fulton County judge rejected a challenge from a bipartisan group of district attorneys who sought to block the law from taking effect Oct. 1.

In the six-page order, Fulton County Superior Court Judge Paige Reese Whitaker ruled that the plaintiffs failed to prove that freezing the law from taking effect would prevent an “immediate and irreparable injury.”

The legal challenge was brought by four district attorneys — three Democrats and one Republican — who view the law as an unconstitutional power grab that threatens their ability to choose which cases to pursue and how they discuss their strategy in public. They have vowed to appeal the case to the state’s top court.

Known as Senate Bill 92, the law was approved along party lines by the General Assembly earlier this year after Kemp put it atop his policy agenda shortly after his reelection victory.

Former President Donald Trump speaks to reporters at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport after surrendering earlier at the Fulton County Jail On Aug. 24. Trump is one of 19 defendants in an indictment Fulton District Attorney Fani Willis brought alleging a "criminal enterprise" that sought illegally to overturn the 2020 presidential election in Georgia. (Doug Mills/The New York Times)

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Credit: NYT

He vowed to punish “far-left prosecutors” he accused of undermining public safety, including a district attorney in his native Athens-Clarke County who won her election on a platform of prioritizing violent crimes over minor drug offenses.

The law is among a spate of Republican-led efforts nationwide to exert more control over liberal prosecutors they view as “rogue” because they refuse to enforce low-level drug offenses, anti-abortion restrictions and other tough-on-crime crackdowns.

The law allows the commission to sanction or remove district attorneys for a range of causes, such as “willful misconduct” or “persistent failure” to follow the law.

Kemp and GOP legislative leaders appointed members of the panel this year, and the commission recently posted a job seeking a full-time director. It’s not immediately clear how soon the Georgia Supreme Court will sign off on its regulations.

Gooch, the Senate GOP leader, said he’s still exploring other options to reprimand Willis, including legislative hearings that could scrutinize her use of public resources.

“This complaint is just one of the tools at our disposal,” Gooch said, “and we won’t relent until she feels the consequences of her misplaced priorities.”