Judge Rules DA Fani Willis Can Stay on Trump Georgia Case But Issues Ultimatum

AP Photo/Brynn Anderson

In keeping with the two-week deadline he set for himself, Fulton County Superior Court Judge Scott McAfee issued his ruling on Friday on the motion to disqualify District Attorney Fani Willis and special prosecutor Nathan Wade from the election interference case against Donald Trump and his co-defendants in Georgia.

The judge determined that Willis and her office can stay on the case – so long as her former lover, Wade, is removed. But he didn’t let her off scot-free, as evidenced by his criticisms in the 23-page opinion. “I see this [ruling] as a judge who found a way to tell us he gets it – he condemns her and Nathan Wade, he doesn’t trust them, he thinks they’re liars and unethical – but he saved his own hide,” Megyn said. “He found a way to thread the needle to protect himself while throwing them under the bus as much as he felt comfortable.”

On Friday’s show, Megyn was joined by an all-star panel of attorneys to break down the judge’s decision and what comes next in the legal process for the defense.

The Ruling

As it relates to “actual conflict of interest” and “forensic misconduct,” McAfee denied the defense’s request for Willis and her office to be removed from the case against Trump and 14 remaining co-defendants. On the basis of the “appearance of impropriety,” however, the judge issued an ultimatum. 

McAfee wrote that “the prosecution of this case cannot proceed until the State selects one of two options.” In option one, “the District Attorney may choose to step aside, along with the whole of her office, and refer the prosecution to the Prosecuting Attorneys’ Council for reassignment.”

In option two, “Wade can withdraw, allowing the District Attorney, the Defendants, and the public to move forward without his presence or remuneration distracting from and potentially compromising the merits of this case.”

Friday afternoon, Wade submitted his letter of resignation. “Although the court found that ‘the defendants failed to meet their burden of proving that the District Attorney acquired an actual conflict of interest,’ I am offering my resignation in the interest of democracy, in dedication to the American public, and move this case forward as quickly as possible,” he wrote, according to the document obtained by WSB-TV investigative reporter Mark Winne.

You can read McAfee’s entire court filing below:

2024.03.15 Order on Motion … by Lindsey Basye

As it relates to “actual conflict of interest,” McAfee said the defense did not provide “sufficient evidence that the District Attorney acquired a personal stake in the prosecution, or that her financial arrangements had any impact on the case.” But he added that the finding “is by no means an indication that the Court condones this tremendous lapse in judgment or the unprofessional manner of the District Attorney’s testimony during the evidentiary hearing.”

In McAfee’s view, Georgia law “does not permit the finding of an actual conflict for simply making bad choices – even repeatedly – and it is the trial court’s duty to confine itself to the relevant issues and applicable law properly brought before it.”

Instead, he suggests “other forums or sources of authority” – including the General Assembly, the Georgia State Ethics Commission, the State Bar of Georgia, the Fulton County Board of Commissioners, or the voters of Fulton County – “may offer feedback on any unanswered questions that linger.”

In Mike Davis’ view, the decision reeks of politics. “I think if the judge ruled on the facts, this would have been a very easy case,” he explained. “But I think this judge has a big political problem this [election cycle] with a Democrat challenger for this judgeship in an overwhelmingly Democrat district, so I think he did legal gymnastics in order to protect Fani Willis in this case.”

McAfee Slams Willis and Wade

While he may have ruled in Willis’ favor, he did not spare her, Wade, or other key witnesses in the case his condemnation. “The order itself was, in fact, scathing in its description of the overall sort of bad judgment used – to put it lightly – by the district attorney and others in this case,” Phil Holloway noted.

For instance, the judge made clear that he found portions of Wade’s testimony problematic:

Wade’s patently unpersuasive explanation for the inaccurate interrogatories he submitted in his pending divorce indicates a willingness on his part to wrongly conceal his relationship with the District Attorney. As the case moves forward, reasonable members of the public could easily be left to wonder whether the financial exchanges have continued resulting in some form of benefit to the District Attorney, or even whether the romantic relationship has resumed.

As such, McAfee said “this unnecessary perception will persist” as long as Wade remains on the case. Furthermore, while he suggested the testimony of witnesses Terrence Bradley and Robin Yeartie and evidence of cell phone data were not strong enough to sway his decision, he admitted “an odor of mendacity remains”:

The Court is not under an obligation to ferret out every instance of potential dishonesty from each witness or defendant ever presented in open court. Such an expectation would mean an end to the efficient disposition of criminal and civil proceedings. Yet reasonable questions about whether the District Attorney and her hand-selected lead SADA testified untruthfully about the timing of their relationship further underpin the finding of an appearance of impropriety and the need to make proportional efforts to cure it.

McAfee saved his most scathing criticism for Willis and her public comments on the case. The judge took issue with Willis’ “unorthodox decision to make on-the-record comments, and authorize members of her staff to do likewise, to authors intent on publishing a book about the special grand jury’s investigation during the pendency of this case.”

While he said “the comments do not rise to the level of disqualification,” he added that “the same cannot so easily be said” of Willis’ decision to speak at Big Bethel AME Church in Atlanta in the aftermath of defense attorney Ashleigh Merchant filing the motion to disqualify in January:

In these public and televised comments, the District Attorney complained that a Fulton County Commissioner “and so many others” questioned her decision to hire SADA Wade. When referring to her detractors throughout the speech, she frequently utilized the plural “they.” The State argues the speech was not aimed at any of the Defendants in this case. Maybe so. But maybe not. Therein lies the danger of public comment by a prosecuting attorney…

More at issue, instead of attributing the criticism to a criminal accused’s general aversion to being convicted and facing a prison sentence, the District Attorney ascribed the effort as motivated by “playing the race card”…

The Court cannot find that this speech crossed the line to the point where the Defendants have been denied the opportunity for a fundamentally fair trial… But it was still legally improper. Providing this type of public comment creates dangerous waters for the District Attorney to wade further into.

Megyn said it is clear McAfee did not appreciate Willis’ behavior. “It’s not appropriate for a district attorney to speak out in the way that she did at that church and this judge absolutely didn’t hold back on that,” she noted. “He didn’t use it to disqualify her, but I did think it was interesting that [forensic misconduct] piece of the motion, which hadn’t gotten as much play, upset the judge.” 

What Comes Next

All the attorneys agreed that McAfee’s decision more than left open the possibility of appeal. “The opinion makes no sense at all,” Alan Dershowitz explained. “I would expect and hope that the Trump team would appeal this… because the judge applied the wrong standard.”

While Dave Aronberg had predicted that McAfee would rule as he did, he admitted the case is likely far from over. “It is a bit of a confusing ruling,” he said. “I think that the judge was able to get to the conclusion that I wanted him to, but the reasoning is really tortured and, because of that, I think there is grounds for appeal.”

To that point, it appears as though the defense counsel is already exploring their options. “We are evaluating what this ruling means for an appeal or any additional filings,” Merchant said in an exclusive statement to The Megyn Kelly Show. “This, coupled with the court’s ruling yesterday, are something we must consider together. We also need to await the district attorney’s decision on how she intends to cure the conflict that the judge so clearly found.”

Ultimately, Megyn believes Trump and his co-defendants have a lot to take away from the ruling. “I have to give the defense plaudits because they found something [on Willis and Wade], and they made the absolute most they could have with it,” she concluded. “This judge – though didn’t have the stones to do the full what’s right – did cast aspersions on [Willis] that are going to last a long time.”

You can check out Megyn’s full analysis by tuning in to episode 747 on YouTube, Apple Podcasts, or wherever you like to listen. And don’t forget that you can catch The Megyn Kelly Show live on SiriusXM’s Triumph (channel 111) weekdays from 12pm to 2pm ET.