Georgia GOP lawmakers aim to put more teeth in state prosecutor oversight commission

Georgia State Capitol on mostly sunny day

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

January 22, 2024

On Monday, a panel of Republican legislators advanced a bill designed to clear the path for a new prosecutors oversight commission to begin reviewing complaints after rejecting appeals from Democrats to have a say in who serves on the board. 

The House Judiciary Non-Civil Committee on Monday approved House Bill 881 that removes the Georgia Supreme Court from reviewing the rules for the Professional Attorneys Qualifications Commission that will determine whether a local prosecutor found to have committed willful or prejudicial misconduct or should be punished for not bringing cases against low-level offenses. A prosecutor could also be removed  if they are found to have mental or physical disabilities that impeded the ability to do their job. 

Despite being signed into law last year, the state Supreme Court declined to review the rules for the investigatory and hearing panels, stalling the commission’s ability to review complaints. In a November ruling, the justices expressed “grave doubts” about the Georgia’s highest court’s constitutional authority to adopt the commission’s rules and standards.

On Monday, the House committee passed the bill along party lines after GOP lawmakers rejected a proposal by Lithonia Democratic Rep. Dar’shun Kendrick to allow the leaders of the minority party to appoint two of the five hearing panel members.

Currently, the oversight commission members are appointed by the governor, lieutenant governor and, and House speaker, all of whom are Republicans. A Senate committee composed of the majority party leadership and the lieutenant governor also selects members to serve on the investigation and hearing panels. 

Rep. Shea Roberts, an Atlanta Democrat, said allowing both political parties to nominate members to a commission with enough power to disqualify district attorneys would be a fairer process. Democratic lawmakers also made the case Monday a potential conflict of interest could arise if complaints are filed by elected officials who also appointed panel members.

“I think the public would like to know that we’re trying to work in a bipartisan fashion, and that these members are going to be appointed in a bipartisan fashion,” Roberts said.

Dallas Republican Rep. Joseph Gullett said that his legislation allows the commission to officially adopt rules and a code of standards that it creates with the support of the Prosecutors Attorneys’ Council of Georgia.  

The legislation also adds language that a prosecutor’s appeal would be heard in the local superior court circuit represented by the district attorney targeted in the complaint. 

“When you’re a judge you pick winners and losers but at the end of the day, (the justices) didn’t pick a winner or loser, they just didn’t play the game,” Gullett said.

Rep. Steven Sainz said that the commission can avoid making politicized decisions while handling complaints such as whether a prosecutor is appropriately reviewing cases in their district. 

“Do you think there’s a political angle to ensuring that citizens across the state who’ve been victims of violent crimes, have the prosecutor’s office to lean on and ensure that those crimes get prosecuted,” the St. Marys Republican asked.

Prosecutors were divided over whether the commission is intended to hold them accountable in the same manner as similar oversight panels governing elected sheriffs and judges or if it would target prosecutors for making independent judgments about which cases to pursue. 

Forsyth County Solicitor General Bill Finch said he opposes a bill which interferes with the way local prosecutors handle cases, especially since the state does not provide any funding for his office to prosecute cases.

“There’s nothing in this bill that undergirds what my political party stands for. And I say that with deep respect and admiration for members of my party who have carried the flag of Republicanism for a very long time,” he said at Monday’s committee meeting.

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