Georgia DAs challenge new law allowing state oversight of their prosecution choices

Scales of Justice with the word justice over it.

by Stanley Dunlap, Georgia Recorder [This article first appeared in the Georgia Recorder, republished with permission]


August 2, 2023

Four Georgia district attorneys filed a lawsuit this week to stop the creation of a new disciplinary committee that has the power to remove county prosecutors from public office. 

The plaintiffs in the state lawsuit accuse Gov. Brian Kemp and other GOP lawmakers of passing legislation this year that creates an oversight commission that they say unconstitutionally undermines discretion of local prosecutors and the voters who put them in office. On Wednesday, Georgia Republican Attorney General Chris Carr promised to hold prosecutors accountable for failing to enforce certain criminal charges as well as for other misconduct that violates their oath of office.

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Democratic DeKalb County District Attorney Sherry Boston, Democratic Augusta District Attorney Jared Williams, Republican Towaliga District Attorney Jonathan Adams and Democratic Cobb County District Attorney Flynn Broady are attempting to block the appointment of the prosecutors oversight commission.

Under the new law, the Georgia Supreme Court would appoint investigative panels to decide whether a prosecutor has committed willful or prejudicial misconduct, should be punished for not prosecuting low-level offenses or is found to have mental or physical disabilities that impeded their ability to do their job.

Public Rights Project, a civil rights litigation nonprofit, filed the lawsuit on behalf of the four district attorneys. The nonprofit said Georgia is part of a trend of states passing laws that infringe on the rights of a prosecutor’s criminal justice tactics.

In the lawsuit, the plaintiffs claim the oversight commission undermines the Georgia constitution that allows voters to elect district attorneys who are lawfully protected to carry out their constituents’ priorities. Additionally, the complaint argues that the new law restricts the district attorneys’ free speech rights under the First Amendment.

“This law is a direct threat to every Georgian who exercises their right to vote – their right to choose the person who they think best represents their values in the courtroom,” Boston said.

The prospect of an oversight commission is getting mixed reviews from local prosecutors. Two dozen district attorneys and solicitors signed a letter supporting the oversight legislation. Georgia’s district attorney and prosecutor associations have warned that the panel could unfairly target prosecutors for making independent judgments about which cases to pursue. 

Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis, who is leading an election interference investigation into former President Donald Trump and allies, has called the law an overreaction. In addition, the new law could put Athens-Clarke County District Attorney Deborah Gonzalez in the crosshairs of the oversight group for her decision not to prosecute marijuana-related offenses. 

Advocates of the state-level watchdog commission say it puts prosecutors in the same position as judges and police officers who are subject to oversight groups that can force them out of their jobs. 

“I have great respect for the important role DAs play in protecting Georgia’s citizens,” Carr said in a post on social media Wednesday. “Unfortunately, some DAs have embraced the progressive movement across the nation of refusing to enforce the law. That is a dereliction of duty, and as a result, Georgia’s communities suffer.

“All Georgians deserve to be safe, and all crime victims deserve justice,” Carr said. “Like everyone else, DAs who choose to violate their oaths of office are not immune from accountability, and we will vigorously defend this law in court.”

Georgia Republican legislators previously rejected a Democratic proposal to establish a similar oversight committee after allegations that former Brunswick-area District Attorney Jackie Johnson showed preferential treatment for a retired sheriff’s deputy, who would later be one of three men convicted of murder and hate crime charges for the shooting death 0f 23-year-old Ahmaud Arbery in 2020. Carr removed Johnson from the Arbery murder investigation and a grand jury later indicted her on charges of violating the oath of office and hindering an investigation.

The sponsors of the prosecutor oversight bill have pointed to Johnson as an example of why district attorneys’ decisions should be scrutinized more closely and promptly investigated if complaints arise. 

Georgia Recorder is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Georgia Recorder maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor John McCosh for questions: info@georgiarecorder.com. Follow Georgia Recorder on Facebook and Twitter.

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