Advertisement

Trump Judge’s Ruling in Georgia Restarts Stalled Election Case

(Bloomberg) -- A Georgia judge’s refusal to bar Fani Willis from prosecuting Donald Trump will restart her stalled election-racketeering case but leaves in doubt whether he will face trial in Atlanta before the November election.

Most Read from Bloomberg

Superior Court Judge Scott McAfee did not disqualify Willis, the Fulton County district attorney, but issued withering criticism of her romantic relationship with the lead prosecutor, Nathan Wade. McAfee said Friday that either Willis or Wade must step aside to correct a “significant appearance of impropriety.”

Wade resigned hours after the ruling, clearing the way for resumption of the case against Trump and 14 others on allegations of illegally trying to overturn Joe Biden’s victory in Georgia in 2020. Yet the timing of any trial is clouded by Trump’s crowded calendar — he faces four criminal indictments and is the presumed Republican nominee to challenge Biden in the presidential election.

“It’s not implausible that there could a late summer trial in Fulton County, but the window on that is closing rapidly,” said Georgia State University law professor Anthony Kreis.

Read More: Trump Georgia Prosecutor Willis Stays on Case After Wade Out

Willis and her prosecutors had pushed for an August trial, but the judge still hasn’t set a date. Trump’s other three criminal cases are also up in the air because of pre-trial disputes and appeals over such issues as whether he had immunity from criminal charges as president.

“The need is for speed,” said Norm Eisen, a former White House ethics official under President Barack Obama. “If I were Fani Willis, I would embrace this ruling, I would respectfully register my disagreement with one or two points, and on Monday I would move to either renew the August request she’s made, or go even sooner.”

Several obstacles remain. Trump could further slow the proceedings by asking McAfee to allow an immediate appeal. If McAfee assents, the Georgia Court of Appeals would have to agree as well. Trump attorney Steve Sadow said McAfee’s ruling was wrong, but he didn’t telegraph how he would proceed.

Continuing the Fight

“We will use all legal options available as we continue to fight to end this case, which should never have been brought in the first place,” Sadow said.

McAfee still has to rule on several pending motions that seek to limit or dismiss the sprawling racketeering indictment. On Wednesday, he dismissed six of the original 41 counts in the indictment, including three against Trump.

While Willis argued that all 15 defendants should be tried together, McAfee suggested during a Dec. 1 hearing that such a sprawling trial would not happen.

He said he “feels eight is the most we could do at once. My initial thought is the state would able to choose an A league and a B league” and decide which defendants should be tried first.

At that hearing, Sadow said the US Constitution’s Supremacy Clause would shield Trump from trial if he wins the White House. “I believe that under the Supremacy Clause and his duties as president of the United States, that this trial would not take place, if at all, until after he left his term of office,” Sadow said.

The case has essentially been frozen since a Trump co-defendant, Michael Roman, filed a motion on Jan. 8 disclosing the romantic relationship and claiming it amounted to a conflict of interest. With the ruling on Friday, the normal business of prosecuting a multi-defendant case may start to resume.

Four defendants have already pleaded guilty, including the lawyers Sidney Powell, Kenneth Chesebro and Jenna Ellis. More may now consider plea deals to avoid the most serious charge of racketeering.

DA’s Reelection Bid

Willis, a Democrat, is also running for reelection, and she may be chastened as she moves forward. The judge was critical of a Jan. 14 speech that Willis gave at a historically Black church in Atlanta in which she said her critics were “playing the race card.”

The effect of the speech, McAfee said, was to “cast racial aspersions” on Roman for filing his motion. While it didn’t deny the defendants the chance at a fair trial, it was “still legally improper” and was the type of comment that “creates dangerous waters for the district attorney to wade further into,” McAfee wrote.

“The time may well have arrived for an order preventing the state from mentioning the case in any public forum to prevent prejudicial pretrial publicity,” the judge wrote.

Kreis, the law professor, said he expects Willis to be more constrained and disciplined on the campaign trail.

“Judge McAfee made clear that his tolerance for that is zero,” Kreis said. “She’s at a point where she’s made some very foolish decisions, and almost everybody agrees with this. If she makes further missteps in the coming weeks, that will be a massive liability.”

Most Read from Bloomberg Businessweek

©2024 Bloomberg L.P.