Trump and Allies Appeal Ruling That Allowed Fani Willis to Keep Georgia Case

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Calling the Atlanta prosecutor Fani T. Willis “utterly unrepentant,” lawyers for former President Donald J. Trump and eight of his co-defendants in the Georgia election interference investigation asked an appeals court on Friday to reverse a judge’s ruling that allowed her to stay on the case.

Judge Scott McAfee of Fulton County Superior Court ruled this month that Ms. Willis, the district attorney, could keep the case. But he said she could do so only if her subordinate, Nathan J. Wade, a special prosecutor with whom she had a romantic relationship, stepped aside. Mr. Wade subsequently resigned from the Trump case, which he had run for more than two years.

But in Friday’s 51-page filing to the Georgia Court of Appeals, defense lawyers argued that this was not enough. Ms. Willis and her entire office must be disqualified, they said, in order to restore “the public’s faith in the integrity of the judicial system.”

The defense lawyers maintained that the romance had created an untenable conflict of interest. Judge McAfee, in a March 15 order, found no “actual” conflict. But he said that the romance had created an “appearance of impropriety.”

Defense lawyers said the judge had made a “plain legal error requiring reversal.”

It is unclear whether the appellate court, which leans conservative, will take up the appeal of the decision by Judge McAfee, who was appointed by the state’s Republican governor, Brian Kemp. Legal analysts generally regarded his ruling on the disqualification matter as reflecting his cautious approach as he seeks middle ground in the contentious case.

Ms. Willis’s office did not comment on the latest filing, though she has zealously defended her conduct. “I’m not on trial, no matter how hard you try to put me on trial,” she told one of the defense lawyers during testimony this month, as she emphasized that it was the defendants who were on trial for trying to steal an election.

Last weekend, in the wake of the judge’s ruling, she told CNN “I’m not embarrassed by anything I’ve done,” adding that “my greatest crime is I had a relationship with a man, but that’s not something I find embarrassing in any way.”

Defense lawyers highlighted those and other similar comments in their new filing.

Judge McAfee had already given the defendants permission to pursue their appeal. But under Georgia law, the co-defendants must also secure the approval of the Georgia Court of Appeals before the matter can be heard by a panel of three appellate judges. The appeals court has 45 days to decide whether to grant or deny the appeal application.

The effort to disqualify Ms. Willis led to multiple days of hearings that delved into salacious details of her personal life. Defense lawyers argued that she had engaged in “self-dealing” by taking vacations with Mr. Wade and allowing him to pay for at least some of the cost of the trips.

They reiterated that criticism in their most recent filing. “No prosecutor has ever been so reckless and relentless in pursuit of personal gain,” they wrote.

Judge McAfee was ultimately unmoved by such arguments. But in his ruling this month, he criticized Ms. Willis for a “tremendous lapse in judgment” in dating Mr. Wade. He also pointed to lingering questions about whether Ms. Willis and Mr. Wade “testified untruthfully,” stating that the hearings had left an “odor of mendacity” hanging over the matter.

The drama over the romance served to distract from the criminal charges contained in the August indictment of Mr. Trump and 18 of his allies. The charging document described myriad efforts to overturn Mr. Trump’s 2020 election loss in Georgia, and four of the defendants have since taken plea deals.

Defense lawyers continue to claim that Ms. Willis and Mr. Wade lied under oath and in court filings. They also renewed their argument that a speech Ms. Willis gave at an Atlanta church could prejudice a jury. In that speech in January, she suggested that the criticism directed at her and Mr. Wade, both of whom are Black, was motivated by racism.

The defense lawyers argue that the appeals court needs to step in to clarify whether such behavior should result in the disqualification of a district attorney.

The Georgia case is one of four criminal cases Mr. Trump is facing, and in each of them, his lawyers have engaged in delaying tactics as the November general election approaches. A Manhattan judge recently set an April 15 trial date for Mr. Trump’s criminal case involving charges that he falsified business records to hide a potential sex scandal. Trial dates have not been set for his two federal criminal cases, in Washington, D.C., and Florida.

Judge McAfee also recently ruled that a pretrial appeal could be sought by Harrison Floyd, a co-defendant in the case who formerly led a group called Black Voices for Trump. The judge had ruled against Mr. Floyd’s contention that prosecutors did not have the authority to pursue election-related charges against him because they did not first seek a referral from the state election board.

As in the disqualification appeal, Mr. Floyd must first secure the approval of the appellate court before his appeal can go forward.

It appears increasingly unlikely that the Georgia case will go to trial before the November election, although it is also unclear whether the appeal efforts will contribute to the delay. Judge McAfee has said that he will continue to address other pretrial motions in the case regardless of what the appeals court decides to do with regard to the disqualification effort.