Georgia Senate passes bill to revive oversight panel that critics say is aimed at Trump prosecution

Georgia's Senate passed a bill Tuesday, Feb. 6, 2024, that would revive a new commission that some Democrats say is aimed at disrupting Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis' prosecution of former President Donald Trump. (Matthew Pearson/WABE)

Georgia’s Senate passed a bill Tuesday that would revive a new commission that some Democrats say is aimed at disrupting Fulton County District Fani Willis’ prosecution of former President Donald Trump.

But one of the bill’s authors in the state Senate, Republican Randy Robertson, insisted before the vote that that was not the intention of the Prosecuting Attorneys Qualifications Commission.

“This has never been about the district attorney from Fulton County,” Robertson said on the Senate floor. “All we’re trying to do is hold every officer of the court to the same standard. It’s what’s right.”

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp signed legislation last year creating the new commission. However, the panel was unable to begin operating after the state Supreme Court in November refused to approve rules governing its conduct.

Robertson’s bill and a separate bill approved by the Georgia House of Representatives remove the requirement that the state Supreme Court approve the rules. The state Senate voted for the change 29-22, mostly along party lines.

The two separate bills in the Senate and House, however, mean the measure will not immediately go to the governor’s desk for a signature. The two chambers will have to agree on one bill.

Georgia’s commission is one of multiple attempts nationwide by Republicans to control prosecutors they don’t like. Republicans have inveighed against progressive prosecutors after some have brought fewer drug possession cases and sought shorter prison sentences, arguing Democrats are coddling criminals.

Republican State Sen. Rick Williams said Tuesday that when his 79-year-old father was killed in 2006 in a crash with a driver under the influence of marijuana, an assistant district attorney initially promised a vigorous prosecution. But on the day of the trial, she said she had changed her mind and was going to let the driver enter a plea that would result in probation and community service.

He said the commission would give people a place to file complaints against such prosecutors.

“The next time it could be some of your family members killed by someone under the influence, and the district attorney decides, ‘It’s okay, they smoked some dope and got high and killed somebody,’” he said.

State Sen. Elena Parent, D-Atlanta, said the commission was a threat to the independence of prosecutors, who work with limited resources that prevent them from pursuing every case. Four district attorneys in Georgia filed a lawsuit in August to overturn the commission, arguing that it unconstitutionally infringed on their power.

“Prosecutors themselves are better equipped to decide which cases are appropriate to prosecute than the General Assembly,” Parent said. “They have been elected by their communities.”

Removing the state Supreme Court from the process “means there’s no oversight whatsoever to what the standards of conduct and rules for this commission’s governance will be,” she added.

Robertson said he was motivated to bring the legislation not by Willis, but by a former district attorney in the Chattahoochee Judicial Circuit who pleaded guilty in 2021 to four felony charges.

But another Republican senator said his colleagues have pointed to the commission as a way to investigate Willis, whom he called a “rogue” district attorney. Colton Moore, who voted against the bill, said state lawmakers already had the power to investigate her and should not leave it to a commission that will make its own rules.

“Let’s not pass the buck,” he said.