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Update: Judge doesn't dismiss lawsuit against Athens DA

The lawsuit alleges that Deborah Gonzalez is "unable and unwilling" to do her job.

WATKINSVILLE, Ga. — A senior state judge on Tuesday did not dismiss a lawsuit against Athens Clarke County District Attorney Deborah Gonzalez that alleges she is "unable and unwilling" to do her job.

The decision came after a roughly hour-long hearing at the Oconee County Courthouse Monday focused on a motion from her attorneys to have the lawsuit thrown out.

Athens business owner Jarrod Miller filed the lawsuit in March seeking a writ of mandamus —  an order compelling Gonzalez to perform her duties. He alleged Gonzalez wasn't fulfilling her obligations due to staffing issues as well as a refusal or inability to prosecute certain cases. 

Attorneys for Gonzalez argued Monday that the order Miller wants is wrong and can't provide the oversight he seeks. There are other measures —  such as a recall vote or having state lawmakers begin impeachment proceedings — to deal with a district attorney's performance. 

If the order is approved, it could be used to disrupt the judicial process within counties, attorney Derek Bauer said Monday.

"(The order) includes inherent protections to ensure ... one unhappy constituent's mere disagreement with an official's job performance can not be weaponized to harass, obstruct or interfere with that person's ability to function in office," Bauer said.

Gonzalez declined to speak with 11Alive on camera after the hearing. In a statement provided to the station by a spokesperson, the district attorney's office said the lawsuit was "an improper effort to disenfranchise those residents and prevent their chosen representative from succeeding in her office."

"The law so clearly forbids the kind of claim that Mr. Miller is bringing that it begs the question of his and his attorneys’ real agenda," a portion of their statement reads. "This lawsuit is part of a broader campaign to intimidate and attempt to shame the D.A. into quitting."

Attorneys for Miller argued that throwing out the lawsuit now would prevent them from receiving documents and other information that supports claims that Gonzalez isn't doing her job properly.

The order, the attorneys said, is proper because Miller isn't seeking to have Gonzalez impeached or recalled. Residents, criminal defendants, and victims aren't getting the justice they deserve.

"There is without a doubt that (Gonzalez) is not performing the duties of district attorney. And that is troubling — upsetting," attorney Kevin Epps said on Monday.

David Emerson, the senior judge of the Superior Courts of Georgia, is overseeing the case after judges in Oconee and Athens-Clarke counties recused themselves.  

Gonzalez became the Western Judicial Circuit District Attorney in December 2020, after presenting herself as a progressive prosecutor who wouldn’t try certain minor drug cases and would reduce the use of probation. Her term has been plagued by staffing issues and courtroom struggles.

Gonzalez has the budget for 17 prosecutors, but there are only six on staff. Her office has hired some additional employees since April. Gonzalez has previously said low salaries are the reason behind the vacancies. A pay study examining attorney salaries in Athens Clarke County government could be completed this week.

11Alive Investigates found at least 34 attorneys have left since she took office in January 2021. Some took pay cuts, and others left the DA's office without another job lined up. 

11Alive Investigates reviewed every Athens-Clarke County felony this year. Of the 763 cases, more than half of the cases closed were dismissed or pleaded down to a misdemeanor. About 73% percent of all closed felonies didn’t lead to prison time.

Aside from the lawsuit, her actions have also drawn the ire of conservative residents in the two counties as well as Republican politicians at the state and local level for her actions.

On Friday, Gov. Brian Kemp signed into law a new bill that will create an eight-member commission with the power to remove or discipline solicitors-general and district attorneys. State Republican lawmakers like Athens' Houston Gaines cited Gonzalez as a motivator for the legislation.

Under the new law, prosecutors could be punished for several actions, including willful misconduct or "willful and persistent failure to carry out" certain duties spelled out in state law. 

Complaints with the Prosecuting Attorneys Qualifications Commission can be filed starting Oct. 1. Alleged misconduct that occurs before this date can't be investigated by the panel unless it's part of "a continuous pattern of conduct that continues beyond that date," the law reads

While Gonzalez did not talk with reporters at the hearing, she did briefly talk with a few supporters there to greet her as she arrived.

Supporters who spoke with 11Alive said the order and the new law are both motivated by a Republican desire to target progressive prosecutors like Gonzalez.

"She's really trying to put into place a lot of things that we feel will help people," said 76-year-old Athens resident Iva King. "It's not just about the law. She's obviously upholding the law but also trying to do it in ways to help people."


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