In Georgia, outside of urban jurisdictions, district attorneys typically operate across multi-county jurisdictions, and the Prosecuting Attorney’s Council of Georgia provides continuing education and training, as well as serving as an excellent information source and case exchange, and defacto professional trade association. However, there is no agency, other than the State Bar Association, with any direct oversight or disciplinary authority related to prosecutorial misconduct.
Each of Georgia’s 49 district attorneys has incredible power to indict, to increase and reduce the severity of crimes charged, to prosecute or not, or to cut a deal... offer witnesses immunity in exchange for testimony, make sentencing recommendations, etc… Over the past four legislative sessions, bills have passed the Georgia House on two occasions, and the state Senate on one occasion, which would create an oversight authority over Georgia DAs and their staff prosecutors.
Georgia’s Judicial Branch has the Judicial Qualifications Commission (JQC), and all other elected officials are subject to review and action by their local DA, the State Attorney General, the GBI as well as the FBI and U.S. Justice Department, in the event of any potential violations of federal law.
State Rep. Houston Gaines (R-Athens, District 117) and Rep. Joseph Gullett (R-Dallas, District 19) are co-sponsoring two pieces of legislation that would bring oversight to Georgia prosecutors. HB 231 would create a permanent oversight body, the Prosecuting Attorneys Oversight Commission, which would be appointed by the governor, lt. governor, House speaker, and the Senate Committee on Assignments, and a similar bill on the state Senate side, SB 92, is being sponsored by state Senator Bill Cowsert (R-Athens, District 46).
Though it is true that neither Cowsert nor Gaines is thrilled with their own local DA Debra Gonzalez, of the Western Judicial Circuit, who is also a former political opponent of Gaines, and many of her policy and non-prosecutorial pronouncements and multiple senior staff departures, this pair’s pair of bills is more clearly aimed at the long-term creation of statewide oversight than any short-term political gains.
And neither political party has exclusivity on controversy or scandal. Yes, there are GOP legislators who believe that Fulton County DA Fani Willis spent a lot of time and money on a special grand jury process that may vanish in a puff of bad press, due to a small flood of interviews by a very unique grand jury foreperson. But no one is suggesting that Fani Willis be recalled by Fulton County voters.
The Brunswick Judicial Circuit in Glynn County oversees prosecution across five counties. It was a Republican DA, Jackie Johnson, who was discredited and eventually removed for prosecutorial misconduct in the Ahmaud Arbery case. Arbery was shot dead on Feb. 23, 2020. Gregory McMichael, one of Arbery’s two convicted shooters, had spent 30 years as an investigator in the Brunswick Judicial Circuit, and Johnson recused herself from the case on Feb. 27. The case would be transferred twice, until on April 13, 2020, Thomas Durden, the DA in the Atlantic Judicial Circuit announced in a letter released May 5th, that he would present the case to a grand jury. The Arbery family released video of the shooting also on May 5th and on May 7th, the GBI arrested Gregory and Travis McMichael. It would take a fourth prosecutor, Joyette Holmes (also a Republican) of the Cobb County Judicial Circuit, before the Arbery case finally went to trial.
Former Brunswick DA Johnson was indicted in September 2021, for “showing favor and affection,” to her former subordinate, Gregory McMichael, during the investigation as well as her obstruction of local law enforcement to not arrest McMichael. Though Johnson was removed from office pending trial, as of December 2022, her first hearing had been again delayed.
In Paulding County, in the district of Rep. Gullet, another Republican DA Dick Donovan, pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of unprofessional conduct stemming from sexual harassment complaints from his office staff. Donovan resigned from office and was sentenced to one year of probation.
As more Georgia counties have GOP majorities than Democratic, there generally will be more Republican DAs. And if these bills become law, each will have an oversight authority looking over their shoulders within a year or two. Setting up staffing, structure, funding and the related Administrative Procedures Act (A.P.A. policies and guidelines) will also take some time. And of all people, district attorneys should not feel uncomfortable occasionally having to sit down and explain their conduct or indiscretions to a jury of their own professional peers. Next case ...
Bill Crane is a syndicated columnist based in Decatur. He has worked in politics for Democrats and Republicans, respects the process and will try and give you some things to think about. Your thoughts and responses to his opinions are also welcome, email@example.com.
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