Judge McAfee: Fani Willis not disqualified, but she or her lover have to walk away from Trump’s Georgia case

News & Politics

Judge Scott McAfee has chosen not to disqualify Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis from former President Donald Trump’s election interference case in Georgia. However, she and her lover, special prosecutor Nathan Wade, will not be permitted to remain on the case together.

While not the decision attorneys for Trump and his co-defendants ostensibly wanted, the unsuccessful effort to oust Willis has nevertheless exposed her to scrutiny outside the court, illuminated a history of “bad choices,” and reinforced her characterization on the the right as a partisan antagonist in Trump’s Georgia saga.

McAfee’s decision may also benefit him in his upcoming re-election campaign.

Leftist attorney and talk-show host Robert Patillo is
challenging McAfee for his seat. Not booting Willis may provide Patillo with one fewer critique to level at the Kemp appointee in the heavily Democratic county.

Despite this turn of events, it remains highly unlikely that the trial will take place before the November presidential election.

Trump pleaded not guilty to all 13 charges against him, including the three quashed this week. If re-elected president, then Trump could ask the U.S. Supreme Court to have the case delayed until he leaves office.

What’s the background?

Willis has been the subject of intense scrutiny ever since Ashleigh Merchant, attorney for Trump co-defendant Michael Roman,
filed a 127-page court motion on Jan. 8 accusing the Democratic DA of being embroiled in “an improper, clandestine personal relationship” with Nathan Wade, the then-married private attorney whom she ultimately hired to lead Trump’s prosecution.

The original filing stated that Willis and Wade “have violated laws regulating the use of public monies, suffer from irreparable conflicts of interest, and have violated their oaths of office under the Georgia Rules of Professional Conduct and should be disqualified from prosecuting this matter.”

Defense attorneys representing Trump and his co-defendants have since filed
additional motions to disqualify Willis, accusing her of tainting the case by fomenting “racial animus and prejudice against the defendants”; coordinating with elements of the Biden White House and Jan. 6 committee in a politically motivated effort to kneecap the Republican front-runner; giving Wade preferential treatment; and possibly running afoul of the federal racketeering statute.

While Willis ultimately admitted to the affair, her defense suggested it “does not amount to a disqualifying conflict of interest.” She denied or brushed off the other allegations both in court filings and personally in court.

Misconduct hearings

Defense attorneys reiterated during Willis’ ethics hearing in the Fulton County Superior Court that she had prejudiced potential jurors against the defendants and perpetrated a “fraud on this court.”

One key witness cast significant doubt on whether the DA and her lover had been honest with the court about the time frame of their affair.

Willis’ old friend and employee, Robin Yeartie,
suggested that contrary to claims made in court by Willis and Wade, the lovers’ affair had indeed predated Wade’s November 2021 appointment as special prosecutor by roughly two years.

While Wade’s former law partner and defense attorney Terrence Bradley had similarly suggested to Merchant in text messages that the lovers’ affair predated November 2021, he
appeared to develop selective amnesia on the stand, suggesting he had only been speculating about the actual timeline.

Merchant noted that even the appearance of a conflict of interest was grounds for Willis’ removal, as it would, at the very least, undermine public confidence in the prosecution.

McAfee signaled agreement, noting that Willis could be disqualified if evidence demonstrated an “actual conflict of interest or the appearance of one,”
reported The Hill.

At one point, Willis told Merchant, “I’m not on trial, no matter how hard you try to put me on trial.”

Blaze News
previously reported that Craig Gillen, a defense attorney for David Shafer, accused Willis and Wade of “systematic misconduct,” stressing that “they need to go.”

Defense attorneys also suggested that Wade and Willis had perjured themselves by misleading the court about their affair and when it started.

The ruling

Judge McAfee
suggested in highly anticipated Friday ruling that as far as a possible conflict of interest is concerned, Wade’s “manner of payment is not actionable on its own.”

“A SADA’s oath of office, in combination with the supervision theoretically provided by a neutral and detached District Attorney, should generally be sufficient to dispel the appearance of that improper incentive. Nor would a romantic relationship between prosecutors, standing alone, typically implicate disqualification, assuming neither prosecutor had the ability to pay the other as long as the relationship persisted,” wrote McAfee.

However, the judge noted that “in combination, as is alleged here by the Defendants, a
prima facie argument arises of financial enrichment and improper motivations which inevitably and unsurprisingly invites a motion such as this.”

McAfee indicated that despite the luxurious trips Wade and Willis went on, and the appearance that the special prosecutor may have paid Willis’ way, the “Court finds that the evidence did not establish the District Attorney’s receipt of a material financial benefit as a result of her decision to hire and engage in a romantic relationship with Wade.”

McAfee also determined that “financial gain flowing from her relationship with Wade does not appear to have been a motivating factor” on Willis’ part to indict and prosecute the case.

“Without sufficient evidence that the District Attorney acquired a personal stake in the prosecution, or that her financial arrangements had any impact on the case, the Defendants’ claims of an actual conflict must be denied,” wrote McAfee.

McAfee noted that there remains, however, the appearance of impropriety on Willis’ part “because of specific conduct, and impacts more than a mere ‘nebulous’ public interest.”

The lack of a “confirmed financial split [between Willis and Wade] creates the possibility and appearance that the District Attorney benefited — albeit non-materially — from a contract whose award lay solely within her purview and policing,” wrote the judge.

McAfee presented the state with two options. Either Willis can step aside along with her whole office and refer the prosecution to the Prosecuting Attorneys’ Council for reassignment, or Wade can withdraw.

While the judge refused to disqualify Willis and did not find that she had prejudiced potential jurors against the defendants, he did blast her “tremendous lapse in judgment,” the “unprofessional manner of the District Attorney’s testimony during the evidentiary hearing,” and Willis’ “bad choices.”

Further, he indicated that the General Assembly, the Georgia State Ethics Commission, the State Bar of Georgia, the Fulton County Board of Commissioners, and voters in the county may “offer feedback on any unanswered questions that linger.”

Still in the game

Permitted to remain on the case, Willis is expected to amend and refile the three charges McAfee quashed on Wednesday.

Anthony Michael Kreis, a professor at the Georgia State College of Law,
noted earlier this week, “Fani Willis has a habit of swinging back hard. To be clear, that doesn’t always serve her perfectly well. … I have a hard time believing she won’t be back with perfected indictments just to prove a point.”

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