For The Record

Georgia House panel hears district attorneys debate need for state oversight of county prosecutors

By: - March 15, 2023 6:02 pm

Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis, who led a special grand jury election interference probe of former president Trump, has called legislation establishing a prosecutor’s oversight commission an overreaction. Stanley Dunlap/Georgia Recorder

Georgia district attorneys faced off Wednesday over a proposed state-appointed commission that could remove prosecutors from office for abuse of power or negligence in pursuing some cases.

Douglas County and Coweta County district attorneys were among the witnesses to testify Wednesday at an two hour meeting before a House Judiciary subcommittee that is expected to vote in the coming days on high-stakes legislation that would establish a prosecutor oversight commission.

The supporters of Senate Bill 92 say that the oversight commission would close a loophole that allows prosecutors to engage in inappropriate conduct that might not rise to the level of a crime but that should lead to their removal. The commission would follow the standards set by the Judicial Qualifications Commission of Georgia, which investigates complaints filed against judges and recommends sanctions when warranted.

Cataula Republican Sen. Randy Robertson said he’s worked on Senate Bill 92 for the last couple of years after witnessing several examples of district attorneys failing to provide justice to victims of crimes and the accused. 

“If we put our superior court judges, if we put our state courts, if we put those others that sit on the bench and carry such immense power; if we put them under the microscope of the JQC, I do not see the problem of putting prosecuting attorneys under some level of scrutiny,” Robertson said.

Douglas County District Attorney Dalia Racin said the legislation is a GOP-led attempt to try to reign in power after a greater number of minority women were elected as district attorneys in 2020.

Racin said that district attorneys and solicitors general in Georgia would be much more at risk of losing their jobs for exercising their discretion based on limited resources and a community’s best interest. District attorneys can be forced to go before a disciplinary board if anyone files a complaint for any reason under the legislation.

“I like to call this provision the shut up and dribble portion of the bill where somehow, we are held to the same standard of judges, who are umpires,” Racin said. “They’re refs who are supposed to be unbiased. We are advocates. We stand up for our community. We sometimes have to take the position of unpopular opinions.”

Among the district attorneys who do approve of an oversight commission is Coweta Judicial Circuit District Attorney Herb Cranford, who said he believes the bill will better ensure prosecutors are held accountable for misbehavior, even though it could be weaponized in a partisan manner.

He said the bill still gives district attorneys the discretion to determine which cases they will pursue, but that individual decisions should be made rather than blanket decisions.

The Senate bill is co-sponsored by Sen. Bill Cowsert, an Athens Republican. Athens District Attorney Deborah Gonzalez has said publicly that she will not pursue charges against people accused of low level drug offenses.

A similar House bill is also in the Senate chamber, although the process of appointing board members differs. Dallas Republican Rep. Joseph Gullett’s House Bill 231 would require the Georgia Supreme Court to appoint five-member investigation panels and three-member hearing panels that will determine disciplinary consequences for prosecutors who decline to prosecute low-level offenses. 

In Robertson’s bill, the panels would be appointed by the governor, lieutenant governor, speaker of the House, and legislators, a system he said is in line with many other state commissions. A former judge and at least one district attorney would be among the five members of the investigative panel. 

The bill’s fiscal note estimates it will cost $1.5 million to create the commission.

“I think what we’ve done is we have built a good structure that builds confidence in citizens back into the prosecutorial side and takes out the politics as much as we possibly can,” Robertson said.

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Stanley Dunlap
Stanley Dunlap

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.