In 2016, Mark A. Gonzalez was elected district attorney in Nueces County, Texas. He stood out among other progressive Democratic prosecutors due to his background as a criminal defense attorney and his tattoos, including one that reads “Not Guilty.” Despite the initial skepticism, Gonzalez was successful in implementing progressive policies, such as encouraging ticketing instead of arrests for minor offenses and making his office more defense lawyer-friendly. However, he is now facing a serious challenge to his position. A trial has been scheduled for next month to remove him from office, based on allegations of gross carelessness and ignorance of his duties. This move is part of a larger effort by conservatives across the country to limit the power of Democratic prosecutors, who have promised to reform the criminal justice system.
Conservatives have targeted progressive prosecutors in various ways. In Florida, Governor Ron DeSantis suspended the elected prosecutor in Orlando, Monique H. Worrell, over her handling of violent crime cases. Last year, he did the same to the top prosecutor in Tampa. In Pennsylvania, Republican lawmakers impeached Philadelphia’s top prosecutor, Larry Krasner. In St. Louis, Kim Gardner stepped down after a bill was introduced to allow the governor to appoint a special prosecutor in her place and the state attorney general filed a lawsuit to remove her. Similar efforts to limit prosecutors’ power have been made in 16 states, with several bills becoming law in Tennessee, Georgia, and Texas.
Despite these attacks, progressive prosecutors have generally been successful in winning elections and fending off challenges. Some have been re-elected by wide margins, while others have been elected in new cities. However, there have been instances where they have faced political headwinds. For example, in San Francisco, voters successfully recalled the city’s district attorney, Chesa Boudin, due to concerns about rising property crime and drug use.
The efforts to rein in prosecutors involve legal battles over executive and prosecutorial discretion. Conservatives argue that prosecutors should faithfully enforce the law and not let their political agenda influence their decisions. On the other hand, prosecutors believe their role is to seek justice and use their discretion to decide which cases to bring and which to dismiss. The Supreme Court has generally supported prosecutorial discretion.
In Texas, the Republican-dominated legislature passed a law this year to limit the discretion of “rogue” district attorneys. The law was aimed at Democratic prosecutors who had pledged not to pursue abortion cases after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. Gonzalez signed the pledge, which was one of the reasons cited in the removal petition filed against him.
The petition to remove Gonzalez could not have proceeded without the support of the county attorney, Jenny Dorsey, a Republican. The petition accuses Gonzalez of various wrongdoings, including being frequently absent from work, failing to supervise his prosecutors, dismissing cases to secure grants, and using his personal Facebook page to promote a business he co-owns. However, Gonzalez maintains his innocence and believes the cases were dismissed for the right reasons.
If the trial leads to Gonzalez’s removal, his replacement would be appointed by Governor Abbott. Regardless of the outcome, Gonzalez has stated that he will not run for office again.
Overall, the efforts to remove progressive prosecutors like Gonzalez are part of a broader conservative campaign to limit their power. While these prosecutors have faced challenges, they have also enjoyed electoral success and have made significant strides in reforming the criminal justice system. The battle between executive and prosecutorial discretion continues to shape the landscape of criminal justice in the United States.