Senior Judge David Emerson
By Joe Johnson
A judge on Tuesday denied a motion by Western Judicial Circuit District Attorney Deborah Gonzalez to dismiss a civil action that seeks to compel her to enforce the laws of Georgia.
Athens bar owner Jarrod Miller in March filed a petition for a writ of mandamus, a legal remedy to force a public official perform their duties, alleging that the administration of justice in Athens-Clarke and Oconee counties 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.
District Attorney Deborah Gonzalez
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.
“This court finds if the defendant has adopted such a policy, she has grossly abused her discretion,” Senior Judge David Emerson stated in his ruling. “The court also finds the plaintiff does not have any other remedies for this abuse of discretion since he does not seek to remove her from office, nor does he seek to disbar her. He merely seeks to have her perform her mandated duty to enforce the state criminal code.”
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 several 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 recently enacted Georgia law that establishes oversight for local prosecutors who opponents 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 the philosophy.
“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.
Miller’s mandamus petition 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 Emerson, a former chief judge for Superior Court in Douglas County.
The judge has yet to docket further proceedings in the matter.