Fani Willis should have known better, by Clarence Page

2/29/2024, 6 p.m.
It doesn’t take a law degree to know that the appearance of impropriety can be just as damaging as the ...

It doesn’t take a law degree to know that the appearance of impropriety can be just as damaging as the real thing.

Sometimes worse.

That’s particularly true in a “heater case,” which is courthouse slang for a case that attracts an inordinate amount of media focus.

Needless to say, it is hard to get much hotter than the courtroom drama in Georgia, where four-times-indicted Donald Trump and almost 20 co-defendants (some of whom struck plea deals) face charges of election interference.

And that parade of heaters spawned yet another: a drive by former Trump crony Michael Roman, among other interested parties, to have Fani Willis — Fulton County’s district attorney— disqualified from the sprawling RICO case she brought against Mr. Trump and the others.

At issue: Ms. Willis’ romantic relationship with Nathan Wade, an outside attorney she hired as a special prosecutor in the election interference case. Earlier this year, before Ms. Willis and Mr. Wade admitted to a romantic relationship, defense attorneys pounced, accusing Ms.Willis of a conflict of interest.

The defendants claimed Ms. Willis personally profited from hiring Mr. Wade because Mr. Wade spent some of the hundreds of thousands of dollars he earned from the assignment on trips with Ms. Willis to such locations as Belize, Aruba and Napa Valley.

On the witness stand, Ms.Willis spent a cringeworthy day defending her integrity and firing back at the attorneys she said were attempting to smear her name.

“You’ve been intrusive into people’s lives,” she said to defense attorney Ashleigh Merchant. “You think I’m on trial. I’m not on trial, no matter how hard you try to put me on trial.”

This case became so hot on a number of levels that it turned into a peculiar blend of courtroom drama and soap opera. On Jan. 14, days before even admitting to the relationship and before taking the witness stand, Ms. Willis stood before the congregation at Atlanta’s Big Bethel AME Church and described herself as “flawed” and “imperfect.”

Both Ms. Willis and Mr. Wade deny they’ve done anything improper. Indeed, their relationship has run its course, and yet he remains the special prosecutor.

Ms. Willis said she paid Mr. Wade back for her share of the cost of the trips. There were no receipts of such payments, which she explained was because she paid him in cash. She said her father had taught her from an early age to keep cash on hand as financial protection. Defense attorneys were incredulous, so up to the stand went Ms. Willis’ elderly father, who testified that, yes, indeed that was what he taught his daughter.

The allegations against Mr. Trump in Georgia are serious, and the sideshow regarding the district attorney’s personal life has done nothing but distract from the matter at hand. It’s unclear at this point whether Ms. Willis will retain control of the case.

Whatever you might think of the case she has brought against Mr. Trump and his allies, Ms.Willis undermined the effort through her own poor judgment.

In other words, she should have known better.

Yes, her legal argument might be sound enough to hold up in court. It’s not enough to be romantically involved with a co-counsel under Georgia law, according to some legal scholars. There needs to be some private gain to disqualify her as conflicted. Hence, the testimony about cash payments.

But legal distinctions are not the whole story, not when one of the most divisive politicians in American history is the defendant. Ms.Willis could survive this bid to disqualify her and still badly damage her future career.

And in the end, what really matters is that justice is served.

Will that happen here? It’s hard to predict how this heater concludes.

The writer is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.