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Judge rebukes Athens DA blaming him for prosecutor resignation

Superior Court Judge Lawton Stephens
District Attorney Deborah Gonzalez

By Joe Johnson

Frustrations fueled by a staffing crisis in the Western Judicial Circuit District Attorney Office recently came to a head in a rare on-the-record courtroom exchange between a judge and district attorney.

DA Deborah Gonzalez on Sept. 21 told Superior Court Judge Lawton Stephens that his treatment of one of her assistants caused him to resign from her already short-staffed office.

The judge fired back, telling Gonzalez to "look to yourself before you blame other people."

Stephens in March had joined with the Circuit’s three other judges in signing a letter in which they identified problems in the DA’s office that Gonzalez needed to address.

A high turnover rate of prosecutors has led to such problems as serious felony cases being dismissed due to a lack of trial preparation, failure to have witnesses available to testify, cases not being presented to the grand jury in a timely manner, among other issues.

“With so many cases waiting to be tried, it is imperative that the Court not be further delayed by the State’s lack of preparation and/or failure to follow proper procedures,” the judges letter reads.

An attorney who resigned in March from the DA’s office told Classic City News that at that time there were only three prosecutors in an office that is budgeted for 17 assistant district attorneys.

Gonzalez has said her office is short staffed due to attorneys leaving for better paying positions in other judicial circuits.

However, that attorney said people have left to take jobs that actually paid less because they were unhappy with the way Gonzalez ran her office. She cited Gonzalez's inexperience with criminal law as a significant reason. Prior to being elected DA in November 2020 Gonzalez was an entertainment lawyer.

When attorney Tab Hunter abruptly quit on Sept. 20 it left Gonzalez with no prosecutors being assigned to Stephens’s courtroom and just five to handle cases in the judicial circuit that consists of Athens-Clarke and Oconee counties.


THE COURT: So all right. Appreciate y'alls...

MS. GONZALEZ: So, Your Honor, I'd just like to make one announcement. I see that we don't have any cases left for trial.

THE COURT: That's right.

MS. GONZALEZ: At this point...


MS. GONZALEZ: Which is good because, Your Honor, Mr. Hunter left your courtroom yesterday and resigned which is the reason why I had to come even with...

THE COURT: Was it something I said?

MS. GONZALEZ: Yes, actually it was something that you said and the way that you said it.

THE COURT: What did I say?

MS. GONZALEZ: And you were very rude to him yesterday.

THE COURT: Come on up. Let's be on the record.

MS. GONZALEZ: And this has been...

THE COURT: Let's be on the record here.


THE COURT: Come up to the podium, please.

MS. GONZALEZ: Your Honor, if I can stay here because this does not give me a lot of mobility.

THE COURT: I just want to make sure I can hear your comments on the record.

MS. GONZALEZ: Okay, but yes, Your Honor, and this has come up more than once in your courtroom and him being very upset at the way that he's been treated. But it takes me months to recruit these individuals. And it took three weeks of him being in your courtroom and he resigned.


MS. GONZALEZ: And this has put us in a really bad situation.


MS. GONZALEZ: As you see, I've had to come here with a broken ankle against the advice of my doctor


MS. GONZALEZ: To have somebody here in front of you to take care of this calendar.


MS. GONZALEZ: And I do just want it noted on the record of why he resigned.


MS. GONZALEZ: And it was because of what you said in your courtroom.

THE COURT: So what did I say that was rude? I said be on time; was that rude?

MS. GONZALEZ: No, Your Honor. It's also the way that you say things.

THE COURT: I said subpoena witnesses that weren't subpoenaed; was that rude?

MS. GONZALEZ: You know, there are ways that we can talk to people. And even when you and I had that conversation on the phone yesterday and you said well, I hold him to, you know, certain expectations and I treat people differently. Josh is new. You treated him great today. You could've given that same grace to...


MS. GONZALEZ: ...Tab Hunter when he was here in your courtroom.

THE COURT: Understand something. Understand that it was represented to me by your office and by reviewing Mr. Hunter's resume that he was a seasoned trial attorney and that he was expected to know these things. Mr. Neal is a law student. I didn't expect him to know these things. But it was represented to me that Mr. Hunter had tried many...

MS. GONZALEZ: And, Your Honor...

THE COURT: ...cases in court and I expected him to be able to do it.

MS. GONZALEZ: And knowing...

THE COURT: That's why he was treated differently

MS. GONZALEZ: ...Knowing trial skills...

THE COURT: Because the expectations of a seasoned trial attorney are different than from a law student.

MS. GONZALEZ: And just like we spoke yesterday, Your Honor, knowing trial skills and knowing these cases when you're first brought into a brand new court where you have to learn the facts and learn the people and learn the parties and learn the judge and learn everybody else in this courtroom. Okay?


MS. GONZALEZ: Not anybody can just walk in and just do everything one hundred percent. And giving a little grace can go a long way. But right now, Your Honor, I don't have an ADA for your courtroom.

THE COURT: Right. Right. Well, I'll say this. I do expect a lot from lawyers who come in and represent the State. I expect a minimum amount of competence in the law. I expect if I -- if I schedule a hearing on July the 5th for September the 18th and an attorney from the State appears and says none of the witnesses have been subpoenaed that I'm going to -- I think that I should hold your office accountable.


THE COURT: Specifically hold you accountable, too

MS. GONZALEZ: And hold me accountable.

THE COURT: Because you're in charge.

MS. GONZALEZ: And you can call me in this courtroom.


MS. GONZALEZ: But the way that you treated him and the way that you spoke to him was inappropriate. And I even called you and said anytime that you have an issue, you can call me and I will be here just like I had my investigator pick me up today because I cannot walk, okay?


MS. GONZALEZ: To be here for you, and all I'm saying is that there are ways to talk to people and to treat people. This is a very intense place to work in. Okay? And what we...

THE COURT: Right. Yeah, especially because you're so short-staffed.

MS. GONZALEZ: Yes, we are short-staffed.

THE COURT: Very short-staffed.

MS. GONZALEZ: And like I said, it takes a lot to bring them in. But it certainly doesn't take nothing to have them run away.

THE COURT: Right. Well

MS. GONZALEZ: And it's not going to help us if we keep losing them, okay?

THE COURT: That's right.

MS. GONZALEZ: It doesn't help us. It doesn't help anybody to get this stuff done.

THE COURT: Well, I, I'm going to. I mean, I think when somebody is the district attorney, elected district attorney, employed by the district attorney's office as an assistant district attorney, I'm going to hold them to a high degree of responsibility and competence. And if I don't see it, I'm going to call it out. And it's time after time after time after time I've seen it with your assistant district attorneys that have appeared in front of me not subpoenaing witnesses, not subpoenaing witnesses for restitution hearings, not knowing who their witnesses are for Jackson-Denno hearings.

MS. GONZALEZ: And part of that has been the turnover, Your Honor.

THE COURT: Right. The turnover

MS. GONZALEZ: And part of that is I have come to ask you...

THE COURT: And I can't -- it is your -- I think...

MS. GONZALEZ: I have asked you...

THE COURT: ...There's a lot of reasons why people are quitting from your office and it's not because they're being treated rudely in court. It's for a lot of other reasons.

MS. GONZALEZ: Oh, I can give you some of those that

THE COURT: I'm sure you can.

MS. GONZALEZ: Not everything has been...

THE COURT: But I'm telling you right now I'm going to hold them responsible.

MS. GONZALEZ: ...Because of me, Your Honor., okay?

THE COURT: I'm not going to hold their hands just because they just started, because there's been so much turnover.

MS. GONZALEZ: And I'm not asking you to hold their hands. I am asking you to be professional and courtesy with them...


MS. GONZALEZ: ...As they're trying to do this job and learn it the way that they need to.



THE COURT: Who are they learning it from?

MS. GONZALEZ: Well, that's part of the issue, Your Honor.

THE COURT: Who are they learning it from, Ms. Gonzalez, at long last?

MS. GONZALEZ: From PAC trainers when I am able to get them to training, right?


MS. GONZALEZ: But the problem is if I am understaffed I don't have coverage for them to go to training.


MS. GONZALEZ: This is something that I've brought to your attention, that I have brought to all the judges' attention

THE COURT: Oh, yeah. Right.

MS. GONZALEZ: Including one that when we were supposed to have summer conference, they decided to have a trial week.

THE COURT: Right, alright. So my suggestion to you, and this is my final comment, is that you look to yourself before you blame other people for all the issues that you're facing in the district attorney's office. And that's my final comment. Thank you.

MS. GONZALEZ: Well, thank you, Your Honor. And I have. But as somebody who has, is trying to manage over 40 people...


MS. GONZALEZ: ...It's not really something that you can say when you're managing two or three.

THE COURT: Court is adjourned.

Transcribed by:


Official Court Reporter

Western Judicial Circuit

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G 300d
G 300d
Sep 28, 2023

Was that a skit from Saturday Night Live???


Incredible. Gonzalez continues to blame everyone and everything for her own incompetence as the DA. she clearly has no organizational Or supervisory skills but her lack of integrity and accountability have created an impossible situation for the fair resolution of criminal cases in our district. She should have never been elected to begin with and in a community of intelligent adults she never would have become DA.


Oh yeah, she's an entertainment lawyer alright. It's an entertainment to watch her make a joke out of Athens Clarke County legal procedures as well as being self absorbed & too blind to understand reality & her job for sure. I wouldn't want to work for Bozo the Clown either.

Replying to

Sad situation!


Sorry to hear about your ankle, ma’am


Samson Tiger
Samson Tiger
Sep 26, 2023

I have the utmost respect for all of our superior court judges—especially Judge Stephens. It is clear in this transcript that he could have ripped her to shreds. But what would be the point of that? I applaud his response of “I’m going to hold them to high degree of responsibility and competence.”

DG is cut from the same cloth as local loser and looney toon Melissa Link. She is so blindly committed to a political philosophy that she’d rather destroy the people’s government than change personally or admit being wrong.

If people keep electing “entertainment lawyers” to be chief prosecutors and bedlamites to be commissioners (not to mention electing commissioners who have multiple DUIs) then this is what we…

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