Three pieces of legislation introduced in the Georgia House of Representatives could have impact on the District Attorney Office serving Oconee County.
House Bill 48, introduced on Jan. 23, would make the election of the District Attorney of the Western Judicial Circuit consisting of Oconee and Clarke counties, and all other circuits in the state, nonpartisan.
House Bill 229, introduced last Thursday, would reduce the number of voters required to initiate a recall petition and dramatically reduce the number of voters required to approve the petition for an actual recall election to be held for the District Attorney.
House Bill 229 also would change the grounds for recall of the District Attorney.
House Bill 231, also introduced last Thursday, would create a Prosecuting Attorneys Oversight Commission with the powers to discipline, remove, and cause involuntary retirement of District Attorneys.
Savannah Rep. Jesse Petrea of the 116th House District introduced House Bill 48. The bill had five co-sponsors, including Dallas Rep. Joseph Gullett of the 19th House District.
Rep. Houston Gaines, who represents parts of Oconee County in the 120th House District, introduced House Bill 229. Oconee County’s other representative, Marcus Wiedower for the 121st District, also was a co-sponsor, as were both Petrea and Gullett.
Gullett introduced HB 231. Gaines was a co-sponsor, as was Petrea.
Incumbent District Attorney
Gaines, Wiedower, Petrea and Gullett are all Republicans.
|Gaines And Bills|
House Bill 229 and House Bill 231 clearly are targeted at incumbent Western Judicial Circuit District Attorney Deborah Gonzalez, a Democrat elected in a special election and then runoff in the fall of 2020.
In February of 2021, Gaines and Wiedower asked the state Judicial Council to do what is called a boundary study of the Western Judicial Circuit with the goal of breaking up the Circuit.
In August of 2021, the Judicial Council of Georgia on Friday unanimously and without discussion accepted the recommendation of its Workload Assessment Committee that no change be made to the boundaries of the Western Judicial Circuit.
Gaines had lost to Gonzalez in a special election for the Georgia House in the fall of 2017 but then defeated her in a rematch in 2018.
The Facebook page of the Oconee County Republican Party contained this message after Petrea introduced HB 48: “Our State Reps Gaines and Weidower and Senator Cowsert have already been contacted that Oconee does NOT want this House Bill passed.” (Wiedower is spelled incorrectly; Bill Cowsert represents Oconee County in the Senate.)
After Gaines and Gullett introduced House Bills 229 and 231, the Oconee County Republican Party Facebook page contained this endorsement: “Time to keep the pressure up on the DA as well as our leaders in Atlanta to shove these bills through to passage and enactment.”
Problems In District Attorney Office
Gonzalez’ office has been plagued with a series of problems, including unsuccessful prosecution of a number of high-profile cases.
A recent, and perhaps related, issue has been staffing.
In her January Newsletter, Gonzalez wrote that “It is no secret that our office has been facing a serious shortage of Assistant District Attorneys (ADAs).
“While all other departments in our office, Investigators, Victim Services, External Relations, and Administration are fully staffed, hiring attorneys has been a challenge that we continue to face,” she wrote.
In December, Western Circuit Superior Court Judge Lisa Lott, who is based in Oconee County, dismissed a six-count sexual assault indictment, ruling that prosecutors failed to bring the man to trial in response to a motion demanding a speedy trial.
The Oconee Enterprise, in a front-page story in tomorrow’s edition, has compared hiring in the District Attorney Office and the Circuit Public Defender Office. At present, the Public Defender Officer is fully staffed, editor Michael Prochaska writes.
House Bill 48
House Bill 48, currently in the Government Affairs Committee, would add District Attorney and Solicitor-General Of State Court to the list that currently includes Superior Court Judge, Judge of the Court of Appeals, and Justice of the Supreme Court to run in nonpartisan races.
Gaines and Gullett are members of the Government Affairs Committee, and both serve on that Committee’s Subcommittee on Elections. Gaines is the vice chair of that subcommittee.
The legislation states that the nonpartisan election that would include the District Attorney and Solicitor-General Of State Court would “be held and conducted jointly with the general primary in each even-numbered year,” as is the case for the judicial races at present.
State Courts exercise limited jurisdiction within one county, with judges hearing misdemeanors, including traffic violations. The State Court Judge also issues search and arrest warrants, holds preliminary hearings in criminal cases, and tries civil matters not reserved exclusively for the Superior Courts.
State Courts are created by local legislation, and Clarke County has a State Court, but Oconee County does not.
Nonpartisan Impact For Western Judicial Circuit
Though the Oconee County Republican Party, according its web site, opposes House Bill 48, it probably would be easier for a Republican, running without a label, to be elected in a nonpartisan race in the Western Judicial Circuit that in a partisan race.
At the end of January, according to county election officials, Oconee County had only 28.4 percent of the total registered voters in the Western Judicial Circuit.
As a result, Oconee County’s predominantly Republican voters are overwhelmed by Clarke County’s predominantly Democratic voters in the Judicial Circuit.
In the runoff in 2022, 66.7 percent of Clarke County voters picked Gonzalez, over James Chafin, with 33.3 percent. Chafin chose to run in that special election without a party label.
Oconee County voters favored Chafin over Gonzalez, 76.1 percent to 23.9 percent.
With the votes of the two counties combined, Gonzalez received 51.7 percent of the vote to Chafin’s 48.3 percent.
House Bill 229
At present, three steps are required to recall a “public officer” of the state.
|Gonzalez Official Portrait|
First, “official sponsors” must file an application for a recall petition.
At present, at least 100 voters registered at the last election for the office must holder sign that application.
House Bill 229 would reduce that number only for a recall of a District Attorney or Solicitor General of a State Court to 50 registered voters “who were registered to vote at the last preceding election for any of the candidates offering for the office held by the public official sought to be recalled.”
As a second step, registered voters must sign a petition calling for a recall election.
At present, 30 percent of the registered voters “registered and qualified to vote at the last preceding election for any candidate offering for the office held by the officer” who is being recalled must sign the petition.
House Bill 229 would change that number to 2 percent.
Impact Of Change In Percent
It isn’t possible to recreate from the public record the precise number of registered voters before an election. The state reports the number of Active voters.
I asked Jennifer Stone, assistant director of Elections and Registration for Oconee County, and Charlotte Sosebee, Director of Elections for Athens-Clarke County, to provide me instead with the number registered voters as of the end of January of this year.
Using those numbers as the base, House Bill 229 would reduce from 34,922 to 3,328 the number of people who have to sign a petition to initiate a recall election.
The third step in the recall election is the actual election itself, where voters would be asked if they want to recall the District Attorney or Solicitor General of a State Court.
Criteria For Recall
House Bill 229 also changes the list of duties of the District Attorney.
Added is “To review every individual case for which probable cause for prosecution exists, and make a prosecutorial decision available under the law based on the facts and circumstances of each individual case under oath of duty.”
The grounds for recall is changed to state that “a judicial circuit district attorney's failure to perform the duties provided for in Code Section 15-18-6 (to which the new duty was added) or a state court solicitor-general's failure to perform the duties provided for in Code Section 15-18-66 shall constitute grounds for a recall of such elected official."
The intent is to prohibit District Attorneys from refusing to prosecute violations of laws the District Attorney disagrees with.
House Bill 229 and 231 have been sent to the Judiciary Non Civil Committee.
Gullett is a member of that Committee.
House Bill 231
House Bill 231 changes the state laws regarding “prosecuting attorneys” to create a Prosecuting Attorneys Oversight Commission.
The Commission “shall have the power to discipline, remove, and cause involuntary retirement of appointed or elected district attorneys or solicitors-general,” according to the submitted legislation.
The Commission will consist of eight members, divided into a five-member investigative panel and a three-member hearing panel.
The Commission also will select a director and such additional staff as the commission deems necessary to carry out the powers assigned to the Commission.”
The Governor will submit the names of appointees to the Senate for confirmation.
The law lists seven “actions that will be grounds for discipline of a district attorney or solicitor-general or for his or her removal or involuntary retirement from office.”
Included are “Willful and persistent failure to perform his or her duties” and “Conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice which brings the office into disrepute.”