Georgia’s state legislature is considering a bill that would create a state-run board with power to investigate and oust local district attorneys.
On Monday, the Georgia House voted 97-77 to approve the legislation, and the Senate is poised to do the same. Governor Brian Kemp (R) has previously advocated for the legislation.
The bill comes as other Republican-led states seek to control district attorneys whose enforcement they don’t like. In Florida, for example, Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) fired a liberal prosecutor for refusing to try certain kinds of cases, specifically for not prosecuting people seeking abortions—and the governor is reportedly interested in doing it again.
Supporters of the legislation in Georgia argue issues with a specific district attorney—Athens-Clarke County District Attorney Deborah Gonzalez—are part of the rationale for the legislation. A lawsuit filed by an Athens business owner on March 13 cast Gonzalez as being “unable and unwilling to perform her statutory duties” as a top prosecutor.
According to the complaint, at least 50 staffers have left her office since she took over in January 2021, leaving just five assistant district attorneys still employed.
“There’s issue after issue after issue” with Gonzalez, Rep. Houston Gaines (R-Athens) told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “The whole point of the bill is to restore public safety in places where you have rogue district attorneys who aren’t doing their job.”
The suit also included a letter from four judges dated Oct. 17, 2022, accusing her of failing to offer pleas in a timely manner, secure witnesses for trials and hearings, and coordinate with law enforcement before trials and hearings, among other things.
State Sen. Randy Robertson also pointed to a case in which a prosecutor was locked up for public corruption in 2021 as the bill’s inspiration. “Leading up to that, everybody was kind of scrambling around, saying, ‘How do we—you know, this guy’s doing a terrible job, how do we get rid of him?’” he told the New York Times. “There was really no avenue for individuals to go to.”
But other Republican supporters of the bill have also been relatively transparent about the political grievances motivating the legislation. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) tweeted her support for the measure last fall, arguing that Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis is too focused on her investigation into whether Donald Trump meddled with the 2020 election in the state to prosecute crime in Atlanta—a line that sounds eerily familiar to Republicans’ angst toward Manhattan DA Alvin Bragg as the grand jury nears a potential Trump indictment there.
State Democrats have expressed concern that the bill will target Willis. Her grand jury’s investigation reached completion back in January, marking yet another legal action that could touch the former president before the year is out.
“Whether intended or not, the majority of the world” will see the bill as a reaction to her probe, Rep. Tanya Miller (D-Atlanta) told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Willis herself slammed the legislation as racist, and could lead to retaliation against the burgeoning class of attorneys of color in the state.
“In 2020, we went from having five district attorneys that were minorities to 14 that were minorities, which is historic for any state in the United States,” she told a Senate panel back in February. “Let’s be even more clear than that. Those district attorneys now represent the majority of the constituents in the state of Georgia.”