District attorney oversight bill headed for Governor Kemp's signature

·2 min read

This article originally was published by the Georgia Recorder on March 27, 2023. The Georgia Recorder is an independent, nonprofit news organization focused on connecting public policies to the stories of the people and communities affected by them. We bring a fresh perspective to coverage of the state’s biggest issues from our perch near the Capitol in downtown Atlanta. We view news as a vital community service and believe that government accountability and transparency are valued by all Georgians.

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.

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp on Jan. 12, 2023, in Atlanta.
Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp on Jan. 12, 2023, in Atlanta.

“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.

Stanley Dunlap has covered government and politics for news outlets in Georgia and Tennessee for the past decade. The Georgia Associated Press Managing Editors named Stanley a finalist for best deadline reporting. The Tennessee Press Association honored him for his reporting on the disappearance of Holly Bobo.

This article originally appeared on Savannah Morning News: Georgia General Assembly approves district attorney disciplinary board