The Persistence of Deborah Gonzalez
Deborah Gonzalez is the newly elected district attorney in Athens/Clarke and Oconee Counties. Her election is the triumph of personal persistence and ability over legislative collusion. It is also a tale, like our infamous I-285 Spaghetti Junction, full of twists, turns and luck that permit a driver to make it through. Perhaps more importantly, this saga has enhanced voters’ ability to select district attorneys of their choice across the state.
This tale of Deborah Gonzalez actually begins during the legislative session of 2018 when Rep. Barry Fleming (who most recently sponsored the SB 202 voting bill) quickly rammed through a bill (HB 907) that enhanced the governor’s power to select a district attorney and improve his appointee’s likelihood of election. Specifically, the new law allowed the governor to appoint a replacement for a district attorney who resigns less than six months before the end of his or her term. This appointee would be allowed to serve not only the remaining months of the vacated term, but also two additional years until the next general election.
District attorneys represent the people of the state of Georgia in felony criminal cases and also aid in grand jury proceedings. They have wide discretion to charge crimes and to prosecute defendants in superior court. A district attorney has the power to determine whether a person is charged with a crime, whether to accept a plea bargain from a defendant or take the case to trial, whether to prosecute an accused juvenile as an adult, and most controversial, whether to seek the death penalty in a murder case or a lesser penalty permitted by law. Last year, a key feature of the tragic killing of Ahmaud Arbery was the inaction of the original district attorney. The Prosecuting Attorneys Council of Georgia has more background on the district attorney system in Georgia.
Gonzalez had announced her candidacy for district attorney in the summer of 2019. The sitting district attorney had said he was not planning to seek reelection, but unexpectedly resigned in February of 2020, during the week for candidates to qualify for the November, 2020 election. When Gonzalez tried to qualify, the secretary of state ruled that the 2020 election for that DA race was canceled to await an appointment. The governor could have appointed a replacement, triggering a special election, but he sat on his hands, waiting until it was within six months of the election to appoint a white guy, James Chafin. Under Barry Fleming’s 2018 law, Chafin would serve out the term and then two more years before he would have to face the voters and stand for election in 2022.
Gonzalez, an attorney, knew the scheme was not constitutional, so she filed a suit in federal court and prevailed. After the state of Georgia appealed to the Federal Court of Appeals, her position was upheld, and finally at the Georgia Supreme Court for certification, she won again. This final ruling on Oct. 8, 2020, required that an election be held on Nov. 3.
Qualifying was quickly held and guess what? Two white men signed up to run against Gonzalez: James Chafin, whom Kemp had appointed as interim DA, and Brian Patterson, an assistant DA. After a short, but hard fought campaign, she found herself in a run-off against Chafin. And in the run-off, she finally prevailed and was quickly sworn in as District Attorney Deborah Gonzalez!
This victory is a victory on a number of different levels. First, Gonzalez won after facing hurdle after hurdle that she consistently surmounted. After not being permitted to qualify, she succeeded in forcing a 2020 election after three separate favorable court decisions. Then she prevailed in a closely contested election and runoff.
At a broader level, the legal battle Gonzalez waged is a win for the ability of Georgia voters to select district attorneys across Georgia. Historically, district attorneys have been appointed, then serve multiple terms, usually running unopposed as incumbents. The Western Judicial Circuit which comprises Athens/Clarke and Oconee counties, has only had two district attorneys in 48 years. And across Georgia and nationally, district attorneys have been more than 90 percent white and male. This victory makes it somewhat easier to break this cycle and open up the office of district attorney to a more diverse pool of candidates. Gonzalez is the first Latina district attorney to serve in Georgia, and nationally, she is the only DA of Puerto Rican ancestry.
Lastly, and most significantly, Gonzalez’s victory is part of a state and national trend towards reforming the role of district attorneys. Historically, the role of a DA has been to administer punitive justice. The number of incarcerations, (and sometimes death penalty convictions) has been sometimes regarded as a mark of a successful DA. But this measure of justice mostly disadvantages people of color and the poor; public opinion is growing that this is not the most effective method of law enforcement. DAs across the country are getting elected as reform prosecutors, and Georgia is no exception. In the 2020 election, at least five district attorneys were elected on a platform of reform, or restorative justice, including Dana Racine in Douglas County, who had declined to run in 2018 because of the Fleming sponsored law that was declared unconstitutional by Gonzalez’s lawsuit.
Gonzalez’s persistent battle and victory gives voters in Athens/Clarke and Oconee Counties and all over Georgia the ability to elect district attorneys of their choice. More broadly, our criminal justice system has deep, systemic problems, many of which are intertwined with racial injustice and rooted in our system of slavery. The move towards district attorney reform, of which Gonzalez joins, is a big step towards a more fair and restorative justice system.