ATLANTA — Update: The lawsuit against Athens DA Deborah Gonzalez will be heard by David Emerson, the senior judge of the Superior Courts of Georgia.
The judges of the Western Judicial Circuit, the district the Gonzalez oversees, recused themselves from the proceedings, according to a court order issued Wednesday.
Emerson, who can preside over cases in any jurisdiction, previously served as a superior court judge in Douglas County.
Original story: Deborah Gonzalez, the district attorney for Athens-Clarke and Oconee counties, has been accused of not fulfilling the requirements of her office due to a lack of prosecutors and a refusal or inability to prosecute certain cases, according to a lawsuit filed Monday.
Attorneys for Athens business owner Jarrod Miller allege that Gonzalez "has been unable and unwilling to perform her statutory duties" as top prosecutor for the Western Judicial District. Miller, who owns 1785 Bar and Grill, is seeking the Athens-Clarke County Superior Court to order Gonzalez to properly do her job. 11Alive was the first to obtain a copy of the lawsuit.
Gonzalez did not respond to calls, emails or text messages from an 11Alive reporter before publication.
According to the lawsuit, a lack of assistant district attorneys and high turnover rates in Gonzalez's office has delayed court proceedings or caused cases to be dismissed in the counties.
According to the document, at least 50 employees have resigned or been terminated since Gonzalez took office in January 2021. The office has the capacity for 17 assistant district attorneys. However, only five are currently employed, leaving the office unable to properly staff court hearings, according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit alleges that Gonzalez also failed to properly advise and convene grand juries. At the end of 2022, Gonzalez's office had 900 cases in Athens-Clarke County in the pre-indictment phase. During the latest grand jury session, only two indictments were issued, according to the lawsuit.
Gonzalez also improperly accused defendants 74 times using a repealed state law, according to the lawsuit. The statute gave district attorneys the power to accuse crimes that would normally come before a grand jury. The measure was passed during the COVID-19 pandemic and repealed in June 2022.
Attorneys representing Miller allege that Gonzalez failed to prosecute cases. She's refused to prosecute truancy cases as well as marijuana and other drug possession cases offenses.
According to the lawsuit, approximately 150 misdemeanor cases in Oconee County could be dismissed because Gonzalez's office failed to bring charges within the two-year time limit.
The Western Judicial Circuit District Attorney's office has also violated multiple defendants' rights to a speedy trial and mishandled several sex crimes, according to the lawsuit. Attorneys for Miller cite a child sex crime case that was dismissed because Gonzalez didn't try the defendant in time.
Allegations in the lawsuit mirror concerns that superior court judges in the Western Judicial District expressed to Gonzalez in October 2022.
In a letter obtained by 11Alive, the judges said that they had become "increasingly concerned regarding the efficacy, preparation and procedural readiness of Assistant District Attorneys working in our four courts."
Among their concerns, the judges said pleas and discovery weren't being provided in a timely manner. Grand juries also weren't being used to their full potential since functions resumed in March 2021.
Gonzalez, a Democrat, was elected District Attorney in 2020. She previously served in the Georgia House of Representatives. Gonzalez is the first Latina elected District Attorney in the state.
The lawsuit comes as both the Georgia House of Representatives and the Georgia Senate passed separate legislation that would create a commission with the power to remove or discipline solicitors-general and district attorneys. Republicans supportive of the commission have cited Gonzalez as a motivator for the legislation.
It's not the first time she's drawn the ire of the GOP. In 2021, Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr criticized Gonzalez, saying she had committed a possible violation of oath of office by selectively enforcing only certain misdemeanors.
11Alive Investigative Reporter Rebecca Lindstrom spent the past three months researching concerns regarding Gonzalez and her office. Lindstrom speaks with Gonzalez and those behind the lawsuit tonight at 11.
In a statement on the Western Judicial Circuit DA's Facebook page, Gonzalez said the "attack" on her office is a part of a "politically-motivated campaign to undermine prosecutors who have been elected by their communities." The statement added that she's proud of the work her office does.
"My community elected me based on my promise to fight for a safer and more just future. 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," the statement reads in part. "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."