ATLANTA (AP) — Georgia House members passed a bill Monday to revive a commission with powers to discipline and remove prosecutors, a move Democrats warn is aimed at disrupting Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis’ prosecution of former President Donald Trump.
The House voted 95-75 along party lines for House Bill 881, sending it to the Senate for further debate. A similar bill advanced out of a Senate committee last week,
Though Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp signed legislation last year creating the Prosecuting Attorneys Qualifications Commission, it was unable to begin operating after the state Supreme Court in November refused to approve rules governing its conduct. Justices said they had “grave doubts” about their ability to regulate the duties of district attorneys beyond the practice of law. Monday's measure removes the requirement for Supreme Court approval.
“This commission will now be able to begin their real work, which is bringing accountability to those rogue prosecuting attorneys who abuse their office," said Rep. Joseph Gullett, a Dallas Republican who sponsored the measure.
Gullett and some other Republicans deny that the measure is directly aimed at Willis, citing instances of prosecutor misconduct, including occasions in the past when Democrats supported the idea of a prosecutor oversight panel.
But Democratic opposition to the commission has hardened, saying Republicans are trying to overwrite the will of Democratic voters.
“The commission will be able to unilaterally proceed and have the ability to interfere and undermine an ongoing investigation against Donald J. Trump,” said House Minority Whip Sam Park, a Lawrenceville Democrat. “You are taking action to protect former President Trump from an ongoing criminal prosecution.”
Senators on Friday approved a special investigative committee that Republicans say will be used to probe whether Willis has used state money to benefit herself by employing attorney Nathan Wade as a special prosecutor.
Trump on Thursday joined an effort by co-defendant Michael Roman to have Willis, Wade and their offices thrown off the case. Ashleigh Merchant, a lawyer for Roman, filed a motion on Jan. 8 accusing Willis of having an inappropriate romantic relationship with Wade that resulted in a conflict of interest.
Willis has yet to respond publicly to the allegations of a romantic relationship between her and Wade. But she vigorously defended Wade and his qualifications during a Jan. 14 service honoring the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. at a Black church in Atlanta. She suggested then that questioning of Wade is rooted in racism.
A filing in Wade’s divorce case includes credit card statements that show Wade — after he had been hired as a special prosecutor — bought plane tickets in October 2022 for him and Willis to travel to Miami and bought tickets in April to San Francisco in their names. Republicans allege Willis was improperly motivated by personal benefit in employing Wade.
Kemp has said he prefers that the prosecutor oversight panel and not the Senate committee probe any accusations of misconduct by Willis, and on Monday called on the Senate to pass the measure quickly. But Democrats warn that removing the requirement for the Supreme Court to review rules could leave the commission itself without oversight. The measure also would make it harder for a court to overturn the commission's action by imposing a high standard of review.
“The question we should all ask is who will police this commission," said Rep Tanya Miller, an Atlanta Democrat. "Who will they be accountable to? Certainly not the voters, because they are not elected. This should terrify all of us.”
Georgia’s law is one of multiple attempts nationwide by Republicans to control prosecutors they don’t like. Republicans have inveighed against progressive prosecutors after some have brought fewer drug possession cases and sought shorter prison sentences, arguing Democrats are coddling criminals.
“If you talk to victims across this state of district attorneys who aren’t doing their job, you’ll recognize why we can’t delay this any further," said Rep. Houston Gaines, an Athens Republican.