Some Georgia prosecutors blast oversight, others support it

Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis appears in a courtroom on Jan. 24, 2023. (Matthew Pearson/WABE)

Some Georgia prosecutors are blasting bills that would seek to discipline or remove them, while others say the oversight is needed.

The Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday passed Senate Bill 92 on a 5-3 vote, sending it to the full Senate for more debate. On Monday, a House subcommittee passed House Bill 231. Both measures would create a commission to oversee prosecutors, which supporters say would provide a needed corrective for district attorneys who engage in misconduct. Opponents say the measures could unfairly void the will of voters and force prosecutors into pursuing undesirable criminal charges.

The bills are engulfed in racial and partisan conflict, with Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis telling the Senate Judiciary Committee last week that white Republican lawmakers are targeting Black and Hispanic Democratic prosecutors. Willis is investigating former President Donald Trump and prosecuting rapper Young Thug.

“This bill was never deemed necessary until an historic thing happened in 2020, and let’s just talk about it and tell the truth…,” Willis said. “In 2020, we went from having five district attorneys that are minorities to 14 that are minorities.”

But Rep. Joseph Gullett, a Dallas Republican sponsoring the House measure, says he’s motivated by problems involving a white Republican prosecutor that roiled his home county. Dick Donovan, once district attorney in Paulding County, pleaded guilty to one count of unprofessional conduct and resigned in 2022 after he was indicted for bribery related to sexual harassment claims.

Gullett said Donovan lingered in office too long. He also said he found that one option for removing elected prosecutors — impeachment and trial by the General Assembly — is unworkable, because it would take too much time during a legislative session. Gullett also said the State Bar of Georgia isn’t effectively disciplining prosecutors, and waiting for voters to oust a prosecutor can take years.

“What is happening today is not working,” Gullett told a committee meeting earlier this month. “There are communities where the justice system is not working in their community.”

Opponents retort that not waiting on elections would be worse.

“It is dangerous to undo the voters because you don’t like someone and you don’t like their policies and you don’t like what they do,” Willis said.

The commission could investigate complaints and recommend to the state Supreme Court that a prosecutor be disciplined or removed. It would cover not only Georgia’s 50 district attorneys, but also solicitors general elected in some counties to prosecute cases in lower courts. The governor, lieutenant governor, speaker of the House, as well as the Senate and House would all get at least one appointment. Most of the members would be required to be current or former prosecutors.

The bills says a prosecutor can be disciplined or removed if they “categorically (refuse) to prosecute any offense or offenses of which he or she is required by law to prosecute.”

That provision appears aimed at some who are declining to bring any charges for low-level marijuana possession. Among them are Deborah Gonzalez, district attorney for Athens-Clarke and Oconee counties, who has also been attacked as incompetent.

Supporters of the bill say prosecutors shouldn’t be able to pick and choose which laws to enforce.

“The job of the legislature is to write the law. The job of the district attorney or the solicitor is to enforce and prosecute the law,” said Rep. Houston Gaines, an Athens Republican. He said waiting two more years for voters to oust Gonzalez is too long “because lives are at stake in our community.”

Opponents say there’s no proof the commission would act quickly. About 20 district attorneys have signed a letter saying they now support some kind of oversight. Randy McGinley, the district attorney for Walton and Newton County, says that “a black eye to one of the DAs is a black eye to all of us.”

He argued the measure won’t affect a prosecutor’s ability to use discretion in which cases to bring.

“If they analyze it on a case-by-case basis, they’re doing what the job requires,” McGinley said. “I don’t think this bill, in any way, affects that at all.”

But Jonathan Adams, the district attorney for Butts, Lamar and Monroe counties, said looking at every case would mean he’d have to consider prosecuting sodomy, fornication and adultery cases. Laws barring those behaviors are still on the books but unenforced. Adams said a woman recently wanted to swear out a warrant against her husband for adultery. Right now, Adams says he has a standing policy that no warrants should be issued for such charges.

“If not for our stated policy, the husband would have been arrested, gone to jail, and perhaps lost his job,” Adams said.