Georgia’s Republican legislators are pushing bills that would make it easier to remove local prosecutors from office, an effort that prominent Democratic prosecutors have decried as “dangerous” overreach. The move comes as Atlanta-area prosecutor Fani Willis considers bringing charges against former president Donald Trump and his allies over 2020 election interference.
A bill passed by the Georgia House on Monday night would create a state oversight panel that could recall any of the state’s elected district attorneys or solicitors general for several reasons, including “willful misconduct” or “persistent failure to perform his or her duties.” The Georgia Senate passed a similar version of the legislation last week. Another proposed measure would dramatically shrink the number of signatures needed to seek the recall of a district attorney.
Republican lawmakers have said the measures are needed to rein in reform-minded prosecutors and crack down on crime.
The bills come as Willis, who represents metropolitan Atlanta, weighs indictments in a criminal investigation of interference in the 2020 election. A special grand jury investigating efforts by Trump and his allies to overturn Trump’s 2020 election loss in Georgia concluded that some witnesses may have lied under oath during their testimony and recommended that charges be filed, according to a five-page excerpt of the grand jury report. In interviews last month, the grand jury foreman told reporters that the panel had recommended multiple indictments on a range of charges.
Willis, who is Black, has called the legislation “dangerous” and said it will limit prosecutors’ ability to carry out their work. She also has said that she considers the bills to be “racist” because they subvert the power of the state’s record number of district attorneys of color. Over half of the state’s population now lives in jurisdictions overseen by its 14 non-White district attorneys.
“The timing of these bills shouldn’t be lost on anyone,” Willis said in a statement to The Washington Post. “The GOP controlled legislature did not find such measures necessary until the state elected a record number of minority district attorneys who now serve the majority of Georgia’s population.”
If the legislation is signed into law, the oversight board would be put in place at the start of next year. Any indictments brought against Trump or his allies would probably be ongoing.
Deborah Gonzalez, a district attorney who represents Athens, Ga., called the bill an “overstep” in the democratic process because it could allow state authorities to recall reform-minded district attorneys “over the will of the people who elected said prosecutor.”
Republicans, however, argue that the legislation would provide necessary oversight of local law enforcement as crime ticks up in major cities such as Atlanta. And Republican Gov. Brian Kemp and Lt. Gov. Burt Jones have called for greater “accountability” of local prosecutors who have said they would decline to prosecute certain cases involving issues such as abortion or drug possession.
The number of homicides in America’s largest cities declined 4 percent between 2021 and 2022, according to the nonpartisan Council on Criminal Justice, but it remains 34 percent above 2019 levels, according to a January review.
The conflict points to a broader national tension between conservative state governments and reform-minded local prosecutors. In Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) ousted a Tampa-area state attorney last year after the prosecutor said he wouldn’t prosecute people who had abortions or sought gender-affirming care in conflict with state law.
“Far-left local prosecutors are failing their constituents and making our communities less safe,” Kemp wrote on Twitter. “I look forward to working with members of the General Assembly and [Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr] to address it this session.”
While many major American cities are experiencing historically low crime rates, incidences of some violent crimes have ticked up across the country in the years since the coronavirus pandemic.
“I want the individuals in the criminal justice system to be held to the same standard that I was when I was there. I want the standards to be increased,” state Sen. Randy Robertson (R) said in a February speech supporting the bill. “We see riots and we see people running all over the place saying the justice system isn’t fair and that people are able to do whatever they want.”
The measure also has the support of some of the state’s district attorneys. In February, 21 of the state’s 50 district attorneys published a letter in support of the bills. “We believe prosecutors that decline to enforce a provision of law or an entire body of law go too far,” the mostly Republican group of prosecutors wrote.
“Elected prosecutors have always had discretion and have always exercised it extensively, to keep cases out of the system,” said Kay Levine, a professor of law at Emory University who studies state courts and local prosecution. “What’s different now with the reform-oriented prosecutors who are articulating up front the policies that are going to guide their non-enforcement choices is that they’re being transparent and public about those things.”