Prosecutor oversight bill headed to Kemp; local control concerns dismissed

On the next to last day of the 2023 legislative session, Georgia House lawmakers sent a bill to the governor that creates an oversight commission that could dispense discipline for local prosecutors who face allegations of misconduct. (Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder)

The Georgia General Assembly sent a controversial bill to the governor’s desk Monday to create a new disciplinary board for the state’s local district attorneys.

On the 39th day of the 40-day legislative session, the GOP-controlled House approved the creation of a prosecuting attorneys oversight commission by a 92-77 vote, largely along party lines. The commission would have a five-member investigative panel and a three-member hearing panel to review complaints lodged against prosecutors and dish out punishment that could include removal from their elected office.

Senate Bill 92 also specifies the prosecutor’s and solicitor’s responsibilities, including reviewing each case individually to determine probable cause and making a charging decision based on the details of the case.

Democratic lawmakers and other critics argue that the Republicans’ plan removes prosecutorial discretion to deciding how cases should be prioritized in each community. Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis, investigating former President Donald Trump for election interference after he lost to President Joe Biden in 2020. Republicans also criticized Athens-Clarke District Attorney Deborah Gonzalez after she said she would not prioritize low-level marijuana possession charges.

“We have grounds for removal and it’s very narrow,” Dallas Republican Rep. Joseph Gullett said while defending the legislation. “If there’s a complaint there must be a sworn affidavit detailing personal knowledge of the facts supporting the complaint. If there’s disciplinary action, that can be appealed to the Superior Court of the county where the district attorney or solicitor general served.”

According to Lilburn Democratic Rep. Jasmine Clark, the bill gives the commission too much latitude to dismiss a prosecutor from office, including for not pursuing cases at their discretion.

“Who decides what’s the willful and persistent failure to carry out their duties?” Clark asked during the hour-long debate Monday.

If both bills pass, the commission would write and adopt the rules.

Gullett and other supporters say the state oversight will provide a better chance of getting rid of bad district attorneys rather than waiting until the next election or clearing a high bar like a criminal indictment of the prosecutor. Police officers and judges are now subject to similar commissions that can impose penalties.

Atlanta Democratic Rep. Tanya Miller said the timing of the bill suggests Republicans may not be pleased with the record number of minority women appointed as lead prosecutors over the last couple years.

“It undermines democracy by silencing local voices while really doing nothing at all to make our community safer,” she said.

This story was provided by WABE content partner Georgia Recorder.