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Republican Legislators Target Progressive Prosecutors Like Deborah Gonzalez

State Rep. Houston Gaines (R-Athens).

Two Athens-area Republican legislators are sponsoring bills—apparently aimed at local District Attorney Deborah Gonzalez, among others—that would create more oversight for top prosecutors and make it easier to oust them from office.

House Bill 229, authored by Rep. Houston Gaines (R-Athens), would require district attorneys and solicitors general to review every individual case and make a decision on whether the facts warrant prosecution. Failure to do so would open them up to recall—and the threshold for a recall vote would be a petition with signatures from just 2% of registered voters, compared to 30% for other elected officials. 

“If a prosecutor is not doing his or her job, we need a system in state law to remove that individual from office,” Gaines said in a news release. “Communities across our state cannot afford to wait; voters deserve a remedy that will allow them to protect their counties, cities and neighborhoods. This bill would ensure that if prosecutors choose to ignore the laws of this state, they will be subject to a recall, and it will be up to the people to decide if that individual deserves to stay in office. It is past time we take on rogue prosecutors in Georgia who are putting lives in danger every single day.”

HB 231, sponsored by Rep. Joseph Gullett (R-Acworth) and cosponsored by Gaines, would create an oversight commission with the power to remove prosecutors from office. Rep. Marcus Wiedower (R-Watkinsville) cosponsored both bills. 

A third bill, HB 48, would make elections for district attorney and solicitor general nonpartisan. (District attorneys prosecute felonies, while solicitors general mainly handle misdemeanors.) That bill was introduced by Rep. Jesse Petrea (R-Savannah) and is cosponsored by Gullett.

Chatham County’s Shalena Cook Jones—like Gonzalez, Fulton County’s Fani Willis and others—were among a wave of progressive prosecutors who won election in 2020 on pledges to end mass incarceration while focusing on violent crime. Gonzalez, a Democrat, narrowly won in a runoff over independent James Chafin while vowing not to prosecute nonviolent drug offenses. She has also promised not to prosecute abortions under Georgia’s strict post-Roe v. Wade abortion law.

While Gaines did not single out Gonzalez specifically, the two have a history. Gonzalez won a state House seat representing Athens over Gaines in a 2017 special election, but Gaines took back the seat for Republicans the following year. Gaines and Wiedower also explored the idea of splitting off Oconee County from the Western Circuit after Gonzalez won the DA race, but a state judicial committee said Oconee is too small to justify its own circuit.

Gonzalez said in a statement to Flagpole that she opposes HB 229 and HB 231. On the recall bill, “it is clear political motivations play a larger role than the preservation of integrity as it relates to elected officials,” she said, noting that it reduces the threshold to recall district attorneys but leaves the threshold for state legislators intact. It would also require DAs to waste resources by prosecuting unwinnable cases, she said.

On HB 231, “the proposed oversight committee would not act as an oversight, but rather an over step,” Gonzalez said. Checks and balances are already in place—including elections, she said.

“Introduction and support of this legislation has been partisan, and that is the same reason my name continues to be brought up in this conversation,” Gonzalez said. “This committee would not protect the will of the people, and it would not promote improved public safety. Instead, it weighs the system in a direction favorable to the current majority party and, in doing so, weakens our democracy.”

During the 2020 campaign, Gonzalez was criticized for her lack of experience—she was an entertainment lawyer who had never practiced criminal law—and that criticism has continued throughout her tenure in office. 

Turnover in the DA’s office recently became an issue when Gonzalez requested funding for a new unit focusing on gang-related crimes, and it came to light that only eight of 17 authorized assistant DA positions were filled. Gonzalez blamed the turnover on low pay compared to other circuits. Athens-Clarke County commissioners decided last week to table her request while giving the go-ahead to a study on the salaries of attorneys employed by ACC.

Classic City News, a website run by former Athens Banner-Herald crime reporter Joe Johnson, has reported extensively on the foibles involving Gonzalez’s office. For example, a judge declared a mistrial in a rape case involving two Oconee County high school students because an assistant DA withheld evidence from the defense. In another case, charges against an accused sex trafficker were dismissed because a judge ruled the DA’s office violated the defendant’s right to a speedy trial. Troup County prosecutors also accused Gonzalez of botching a case against a LaGrange man accused of child pornography and posting secretly taped videos of women to porn sites while living in Athens.