GA Bill Latest to Target Prosecutors 03/28 06:05
ATLANTA (AP) -- A new Georgia commission to discipline and remove wayward
prosecutors would be the latest move nationwide to ratchet up oversight on what
Republicans see as "woke prosecutors" who aren't doing enough to fight crime.
The Georgia House voted 97-77 on Monday for Senate Bill 92 to create the
commission. The Senate later sent the measure to Republican Gov. Brian Kemp for
his signature or veto. Kemp has previously voiced support for the concept.
The Georgia bill parallels efforts to remove prosecutors in Florida,
Missouri, Indiana and Pennsylvania, as well as broader disputes nationwide over
how certain criminal offenses should be charged. All continue anti-crime
campaigns that Republicans ran nationwide last year, accusing Democrats of
coddling criminals and acting improperly by refusing to prosecute whole
categories of crimes including marijuana possession. All the efforts raise the
question of prosecutorial discretion -- a prosecutor's decision of what cases
to try or reject and what charges to bring.
Carissa Hessick, a law professor at the University of North Carolina at
Chapel Hill, said the Republican push tries to reverse a sea change in
prosecution. Hessick, who directs the Prosecutors and Politics Project, said
that for the first time voters are confronted with meaningful debate about
"I think it's happened because several years ago, there was a push to try to
use the office of prosecutor to address mass incarceration and injustices
within the criminal justice system," she said. "That movement was successful in
a lot of places."
Georgia Democrats intensely oppose the measure, saying majority Republicans
are seeking another way to impose their will on local Democratic voters.
Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis has decried the measure,
claiming it's a racist attack after voters elected 14 nonwhite district
attorneys in Georgia in 2020. Willis pushed herself to the center of the
controversy even as she's mulling charges against former President Donald Trump
for interfering in Georgia's 2020 election. Some have viewed it as Republican
retribution against the Atlanta prosecutor.
But the energy behind the bill has not been against Willis, whom in addition
to targeting Trump is pursuing a tough-on-crime offensive against alleged gang
members. Instead, many Georgia Republicans are most angered by Deborah
Gonzalez, a district attorney who covers two counties including Athens, Kemp's
hometown. She's under fire for refusal to prosecute marijuana crimes, an
outflow of prosecutors working under her, and failure to meet court deadlines.
"That's the whole point of this bill, is to restore public safety in places
where you have rogue district attorneys who simply are not doing their job,"
said Georgia Republican Rep. Houston Gaines of Athens.
The effort was born from frustrations involving a white Republican
prosecutor in suburban Atlanta who was indicted for bribery related to sexual
harassment claims. He lingered until he pleaded guilty to unprofessional
conduct and resigned in 2022.
Some Democrats were interested in similar measures for a time because of
Jackie Johnson, the coastal Georgia district attorney later charged with
hindering the police investigation into the 2020 killing of Ahmaud Arbery.
Democratic interest cooled after voters ousted Johnson. Now they say
Republicans should respect the will of local voters.
Rep. Tanya Miller, an Atlanta Democrat and former prosecutor, on Monday
described the bill as a "a power grab by the majority party to usurp the will
of the voters by putting this body in the business of overseeing duly elected
prosecutors throughout this state."
Crucially, the Georgia bill mandates that a prosecutor must consider every
case for which probable cause exists and can't exclude categories of cases from
prosecution. A similar bill pending in Indiana would let an oversight board
appoint a special prosecutor to handle cases when a "noncompliant" prosecutor
refuses to charge certain crimes.
Hessick said considering every case individually is an unrealistic standard
because prosecutors turn away many more cases than they accept. She said the
Georgia law is less likely to change prosecutors' decisions about which cases
they pursue than to muzzle their ability to talk about their decisions.
"It's designed to stop them from running on these platforms of reform,"
The rules could also target prosecutors who declared before Roe v. Wade was
overturned in 2022 that they would not prosecute abortion-related offenses.
Seven current Georgia district attorneys made such pledges, among dozens
In some states, such laws could face hurdles. A New York court struck down a
2018 commission to investigate prosecutorial conduct after district attorneys
sued saying it gave state lawmakers too much oversight over independent offices.
Then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo in 2021 signed another version into law. The
commission isn't yet operating because some members haven't been appointed, a
court spokesperson said.
Georgia lawmakers can already impeach district attorneys and solicitors
general -- elected prosecutors in some Georgia counties who handle lower-level
cases. But they say impeachment would take up too much of lawmakers' time.
Instead, the new commission would investigate and make decisions. A prosecutor
could appeal a decision to a state-level court, and eventually to the state
Impeachment is proceeding in Pennsylvania, where state House Republicans
voted in November to impeach Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner for
reasons including his failure to prosecute some minor crimes, his bail policies
Krasner sued to challenge the impeachment's legality, and a divided state
court ruled for him, finding impeachment articles didn't reach the needed legal
Plans for an impeachment trial in the Republican-majority Pennsylvania
Senate have been on hold while that decision is appealed. In the meantime, the
Republican majority that voted to impeach in the House is now a Democratic
majority. It's unclear what that will mean for any trial.
Other governors and legislatures have moved more directly to remove
prosecutors. Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis suspended State Attorney
Andrew Warren in Tampa's Hillsborough County in August. A federal judge found
DeSantis illegally targeted Warren because he's a Democrat who has publicly
supported abortion and transgender rights and because it would politically
benefit DeSantis. But the judge wrote he had no power to reinstate Warren,
leading the Democrat to appeal to the state Supreme Court.
In the meantime, the prosecutor that DeSantis tapped to replace Warren has
resumed prosecuting some misdemeanors -- including suspended licenses,
disorderly conduct and panhandling -- that Warren had stopped bringing to trial.
The GOP-led Missouri legislature is also maneuvering to override a
Democratic prosecutor -- St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner. It would let
Republican Gov. Mike Parson appoint an additional special prosecutor for five
years in any jurisdiction where the homicide rate exceeds 35 killings per
100,000 residents. The bill was drafted with St. Louis in mind.
Also, Missouri Republican Attorney General Andrew Bailey is seeking to
remove Gardner from office, alleging negligence in her job. If a judge agrees,
Parson would appoint her replacement. A hearing date hasn't been set.