By Joe Johnson
A hearing has been scheduled concerning an Athens businessman's application for a judicial order compelling Western Judicial Circuit District Attorney Deborah Gonzalez to perform her duties as proscribed by law.
In his March 13 filing in Clarke County Superior Court, Jarrod Miller alleges that the administration of justice in the two-county judicial circuit has suffered due to the D.A.s lack of experience in criminal law and the mismanagement of her office, which has seen extremely high turnover of prosecutors that resulted in a critical backlog of cases.
Miller also alleges that Gonzalez's policy of restorative justice has resulted in many cases, particularly those related to substance addictions, not being prosecuted as felonies.
While Miller's application for a "writ of mandamus" wants a judge to force the DA to follow broad statutes that spell out duties of the district attorney, the 20-page filing and accompanying exhibits more specifically outline numerous examples of alleged failures within the DA's office that paints a picture of turmoil and inexperience that has hampered efforts to successfully prosecute crimes.
The Athens bar owner believes that Gonzalez "has caused the Western Judicial Circuit to come to a grinding stop because of her inability to carry out her duties as district attorney.”
The DA's office is responsible for prosecuting criminal cases in a circuit which is comprised by Athens-Clarke and Oconee counties.
In Oconee County alone, Miller's petition asserts, some 150 cases are in jeopardy of being dismissed because they have not been presented to a grand jury within the statutory timeframe.
Gonzalez has countered that due to inadequate funding, her office has seen its staff that is supposed to have 17 assistant district attorneys dwindle to just five who now have an unsustainable number of cases to handle. She asserts that her ADAs have left for better paying positions in other circuits.
Additionally, Gonzalez believes that Miller's court filing is related to a push by Georgia lawmakers to establish oversight for local prosecutors who they deem to be too political.
“This attack on my office is part of a broader, politically-motivated campaign to undermine prosecutors who have been elected by their communities to pursue smart justice that moves away from the failed “tough on crime” strategies of the past,” said Gonzalez.
After taking office in 2022, Gonzalez has operated under the philosophy of “restorative justice,” which holds, among other things, that misdemeanor drug offenses should not be criminally prosecuted when the offenses stem from addiction. Such offenders need treatment and not punishment under restorative justice.
“These attacks, in the form of power-stripping removal petitions and impeachments, among other things, are happening in Texas, Pennsylvania, Florida, Iowa, and Georgia to name a few,” Gonzalez said. “They have nothing to do with making our communities safer and everything to do with deflecting attention away from our refusal to seriously address the causes of crime.”
State Rep. Houston Gaines (R-Athens), recently co-sponsored proposed legislation that would create a commission overseeing prosecutors with the ability to discipline them for, among other things, "willful and persistent failure to perform his or her duties." Similar language is found in a proposed Senate bill that is co-sponsored by fellow Athens Republican Sen. Bill Cowsert.
“My community elected me based on my promise to fight for a safer and more just future,” Gonzalez said. “I will always strive to be better in implementing new approaches, and I am proud of the work our office does every day, fighting for victims and a more just legal system. I will continue to hold myself accountable to my community and resist efforts to strip them of the leadership they have duly elected to carry out this job.”
Miller’s application was initially assigned to Judge Lisa Lott, but since the judicial circuit’s four Superior Court judges recused themselves from hearing the matter, the case was reassigned to Senior Judge David T. Emerson, formerly chief judge for Superior Court in Douglas County.
A hearing has been scheduled for April 6.