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These Texas DAs refused to prosecute abortion. Republican lawmakers want them stopped

Nueces County District Attorney Mark Gonzalez studies past criminal cases his office has prosecuted, inside the county courthouse in Corpus Christi, Texas.
Ryan Poppe
Nueces County District Attorney Mark Gonzalez studies past criminal cases his office has prosecuted, inside the county courthouse in Corpus Christi, Texas.

DALLAS – Texas is at the center of an ongoing, nationwide struggle between state and local authorities. It's an escalating dispute over who has what power — and when.

The newest battle centers on criminal district attorneys in Texas' big cities, who are mostly Democrats. Some of these chief prosecutors have told their communities they will use their inherent discretion and not zealously pursue criminal cases against women who seek abortions or families who obtain gender-affirming health care for their children. (Several later said they would make decisions on a case-by-case basis.)

But declarations from prosecutors have led conservative lawmakers in Texas and elsewhere to propose legislation seeking to curb the power of DAs.

"There is an interesting philosophical debate about where power should rest in a state-local system," says Ann Bowman, a professor at Texas A&M's Bush School of Government. "How much the state should have, how much local government should have."

The fight nationwide

The clash has echoes in other state-local power struggles. In Mississippi, Republican state lawmakers have proposed installing state-appointed judges in the City of Jackson and giving the capitol police force citywide jurisdiction. Jackson is 83% percent Black and controlled by Democrats.

Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker, a Democrat, said county sheriffs "won't be in their job" if they don't enforce a new requirement that owners of semi-automatic rifles register them with the state.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis waits to speak during a press conference held at the Broward County Courthouse on Aug. 18, 2022 in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
Joe Raedle / Getty Images
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Getty Images
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis waits to speak during a press conference held at the Broward County Courthouse on Aug. 18, 2022 in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

And a county prosecutor in Florida was removed last year after Gov. Ron DeSantis accused him of not enforcing certain laws.

Texas' governor does not have that power, although some legislative proposals would set a process for removal.

That includes one from Texas Rep. David Cook, a Republican from the Fort Worth area. His bill would ban district attorneys from having a policy of not enforcing any particular offense. The bill would set financial penalties, too.

"As a district attorney, you have a job which entails looking at all the cases that are brought in and judging each case on a case-by-case basis," Cook says. "And so, if you're making blanket statements and giving blanket immunity, then you're not doing your job."

In Georgia, similar legislation is moving. There, the state would create a commission to oversee prosecutors and allow for discipline or removal if they refused to charge a particular crime.

Big City DAs in Texas go quiet

Several of the same progressive prosecutors in Texas who made statements after the Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization decision aren't doing interviews on the proposed bills. The state association of district and county attorneys told members the flood of prosecutor-related bills "deserves your full attention."

District Attorney Mark Gonzalez of Nueces County in South Texas, who is facing an unrelated effort to remove him from office, says the group's announcement to not pursue abortion cases may have been too hasty.

"The statement may have been the straw that perhaps broke the camel's back," says Gonzalez, a Democrat. "I think it'd be smarter for us to move in silence, and I think that may have been something we didn't accomplish."

Yet he sees the bills to curb local prosecutors as part of a larger backlash against a more progressive approach to law enforcement, one that seeks to reduce mass incarceration and prevent its damaging effects.

"We have a different approach to making some changes to it, which can impact people of color and lower economic status," Gonzalez says. "I don't know why that's such a big deal."

Not every local official gets blowback for bucking the state. A group of Texas sheriffs refused to enforce the governor's mask mandate early in the COVID-19 pandemic, yet there was no flurry of proposals to make them follow that law. Some experts say that's because sheriffs align more with the conservative leadership of the state.

State Rep. Cook, however, said he's open to reining them in.

"I have not filed a bill in that regard, but I certainly would not rule it out," he says.

For the moment, though, bills targeting county district attorneys are what's on offer.

Gonzalez says he has no written policy about pursuing certain crimes but tells his office to simply "do the right thing." He's not running for reelection and said he will be happy to watch from the sidelines should any new law get litigated in court.

Copyright 2023 KERA

Bret Jaspers (KERA)