Judge clears way for Trump to appeal ruling keeping Fani Willis on Georgia 2020 election case

Associated Press | 3/21/2024, 6 p.m.
The judge overseeing the Georgia 2020 election interference case cleared the way Wednesday for Donald Trump and other defendants to ...
Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis looks on during a hearing on the Georgia election interference case, Friday, March, 1, in Atlanta. Photo by Associated Press

ATLANTA - The judge overseeing the Georgia 2020 election interference case cleared the way Wednesday for Donald Trump and other defendants to appeal a ruling allowing Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis to remain on the prosecution.

Superior Court Judge Scott McAfee granted a request by defense attorneys seeking permission to ask the Georgia Court of Appeals to review the judge’s decision. It will be up to the appeals court to decide whether to hear it.

Judge McAfee last week refused to disqualify Ms. Willis from the case or dismiss the indictment over her romantic relationship with special prosecutor Nathan Wade. The judge said Willis can remain on the most sprawling of four criminal cases against the former president as long as Mr. Wade resigns, which he did last Friday.

But the judge also rebuked Ms. Willis for her “tremendous” lapse in judgment and questioned the truthfulness of Mr. Wade’s and her testimony about the timing of their relationship. While the judge did not find the relationship created a conflict of interest that should force Ms. Willis off the case, he said an “appearance of impropriety" infected the prosecution team.

Attorneys for Mr. Trump and the other defendants said in court papers on Monday that Mr. Wade’s resignation was not enough to correct that. Defense lawyers say a failure to remove Ms. Willis could imperil any convictions and force a retrial if an appeals court later finds it was warranted.

Jeff DiSantis, a spokesman for the district attorney’s office, noted in a text message that the case had not been put on hold, so he said the office will “work to move it forward to trial as quickly as possible.” The district attorney’s office will only comment on the appeal in court filings, he said.

Ms. Willis’ romantic relationship with Mr. Wade has roiled the case for weeks, overshadowing the allegations charging Trump and 18 others with trying to illegally overturn his narrow loss to Democrat Joe Biden in 2020 in a desperate bid to remain in power.

Mr. Trump has pleaded not guilty and has denied doing anything wrong. The presumptive Republican nominee for the 2024 presidential election has characterized all the criminal cases against him as an effort to hurt his bid to reclaim the White House in November.

Defense attorneys alleged that Ms. Willis paid Mr. Wade large sums for his work and then improperly benefited from the prosecution of the case when Mr. Wade used his earnings to pay for vacations for the two of them.

Ms. Willis and Mr. Wade acknowledged they engaged in a romantic relationship, but they rejected the idea that Ms. Willis improperly benefited from it, as lawyers for Mr. Trump and some of his co-defendants alleged. Ms. Willis and Mr. Wade insisted they didn’t begin dating until after he became special prosecutor and the relationship ended in the summer of 2023. They both said that Ms. Willis either paid for things herself or used cash to reimburse Mr. Wade for travel expenses.

Mr. Wade offered his resignation in a letter to Ms. Willis on Friday, saying he was doing so “in the interest of democracy, in dedication to the American public and to move this case forward as quickly as possible.”

“I will always remember — and will remind everyone — that you were brave enough to step forward and take on the investigation and prosecution of the allegations that the defendants in this case engaged in a conspiracy to overturn Georgia’s 2020 Presidential Election,” Ms. Willis wrote in a letter accepting his resignation.