Monday, May 8, 2023

Georgia, and soon Texas, seek power to remove elected prosecutors

Georgia Republicans have pushed through legislation that threatens to remove from office locally-elected prosecutors who won’t charge certain types of cases, such as abortion or marijuana, reported Bolts. 

Senate Bill 92, signed by Governor Brian Kemp on Friday, adds to the GOP’s nationwide crackdown against reform-minded prosecutors who have adopted such “declination” policies. Texas Republicans are in the process of passing a bill meant to force the hand of district attorneys who have ruled out enforcing abortion bans. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis removed Tampa’s prosecutor from office in August, pointing to statements he’d made about protecting abortion. Similar moves are underway in other states.

The bill sets up a new board with the authority to oust DAs who don’t fulfill their duties. It also redefines the duties of DAs—and so what counts as grounds for removal—to specify that they cannot “categorically” refuse to prosecute offenses that they are “by law required to prosecute.”

Criminal justice reformers have long aimed for increased oversight over DAs, frustrated that prosecutors routinely violate ethics and defendants’ rights with little consequence. In the wake of the shooting of Armaud Arbery and of allegations that a local DA blocked investigations into his death in 2020, Georgia Democrats proposed a bill that would have created a similar state disciplinary board. But their bill did not contain a mandate that DAs file charges based on all existing laws. Republicans added that language when they repurposed the proposal this year, motivated in part by the aftermath of Dobbs, and Democratic lawmakers opposed the resulting bill. 

One of Republicans’ prime target is Deborah Gonzalez, the Democratic DA of Athens-Clarke and Oconee counties. Gonzalez won on a progressive platform in 2020 and quickly rolled out reforms that included ending prosecutions over marijuana possession, a charge that has been used in Athens to target Black residents. After the Supreme Court overturned Roe vs. Wade in June, Gonzalez joined other Georgia DAs in saying she would not prosecute abortion. 

Republicans have signaled that they want their new state board to kick Gonzalez out of her elected office over cases she is not charging. “What do we do about these prosecutors who won’t prosecute?” asked Ed Setzler, a GOP lawmaker from Acworth, two hours west of Athens.

Bolts talked to Gonzalez about SB 92 after the bill passed the legislature. She denounced it as antidemocratic and said her critics want to override an election because they dislike its outcome. She also made the case that it’s appropriate for DAs to not prosecute certain cases—including abortion. In fact, she said, this approach can be a boon for public safety. 

“Prosecutorial discretion has not been a problem for generations,” she said, “but because you have a new class of reform-minded prosecutors coming into power who can now use that same discretion to hold people accountable but in a fair and just way, now it’s a problem.”.

Gonzalez has survived other efforts to reduce her power. When she declared her candidacy, Kemp tried to altogether cancel the local DA race, part of a pattern of election cancellations in Georgia, but the state supreme court stepped in to restore the election, which Gonzalez won in a December 2020 runoff. Republicans then proposed a bill to cut her circuit in two. Gonzalez now also faces a lawsuit, filed by a business owner in Athens, that alleges that she is not doing her job and is refusing to prosecute certain offenses like drug cases.

Besides SB 92, Georgia Republicans proposed other bills this year that target prosecutors. One bill would have lowered the number of signatures people have to collect to force a recall election against a DA from 30 to 2 percent of registered voters; the bill died in the state House when the session ended. 

Fueling this trend in Georgia is Republican anger toward Fulton County DA Fani Willis, who is investigating former President Donald Trump for his efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election.

Willis, who is Black, has denounced the GOP bills as a “dangerous” effort to overturn a series of wins by people of color in the state’s 2020 prosecutor races—a criticism that Gonzalez also echoed in her interview with Bolts.

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