Trump, co-defendants start appeals process for ruling that let Fani Willis stay on Georgia case

Judge Scott McAfee declined to outright disqualify Fulton County DA Fani Willis.

March 18, 2024, 6:01 PM

Former President Donald Trump and some of his co-defendants in the Fulton County election interference case on Monday kicked off the process to appeal the judge's disqualification ruling that ultimately kept District Attorney Fani Willis on the case, asking the court in a new motion to grant a certificate of immediate review.

"A criminal defendant is entitled to a disinterested prosecutor," the Monday filing states.

Trump and his co-defendants must be granted the certificate by Judge Scott McAfee, who oversees the case, in order to appeal his ruling on the disqualification issue up to the Georgia Court of Appeals. If McAfee declines to grant the certificate, they cannot appeal the ruling at this time. If Trump and his co-defendants are granted the certificate, it is left to the Georgia Court of Appeals to determine if they will take it up -- a move some legal experts say could result in a pause in the case.

Nathan Wade, the lead prosecutor in the Fulton County election interference case, resigned Friday as special prosecutor following a ruling by the judge overseeing the case. Wade's resignation came hours after McAfee declined to outright disqualify Willis, but ruled either she or Wade must step aside from the case due to a "significant appearance of impropriety" stemming from a romantic relationship between Willis and Wade.

Per the judge's ruling, Wade's resignation means Willis and the rest of her team will remain on the case.

The joint filing Monday afternoon from Trump, Rudy Giuliani, Mark Meadows, Michael Roman and others states Wade's resignation is "insufficient" to "cure the appearance of impropriate the Court has determined exists." The filing also notes the lack of "appellate guidance" previously on the issue.

"Whether District Attorney Willis and her Office are permitted to continue representing the State of Georgia in prosecuting the Defendants in this action is of the utmost importance to this case, and ensuring the appellate courts have the opportunity to weigh in on these matters pre-trial is paramount," the filing states.

In his ruling, McAfee ultimately decided the defendants failed to prove that Willis' romantic relationship with Wade -- and their subsequent travel -- amounted to a conflict of interest. But McAfee said there was a "significant appearance of impropriety" left with the case.

The filing from Trump on Monday also states that "immediate appellate review" is needed of the order "based upon the personal stake that she has acquired in this prosecution," saying the appellate court would likely find Willis' disqualification is "required" based solely on the appearance of impropriety.

Trump and his codefendants also warned that if the certificate is not granted and the case goes to trial but then is later overturned on appeal, that would "likely require the retrial of every convicted defendant."

"Given the length and complexity of the trial(s) in this case ... either the Court nor the Parties should run an unnecessary risk of having to go through that process more than once," the filing states.

The motion restates the defendants' position that "relevant case law requires dismissal of the case, or at the very least, the disqualification of the District Attorney and her entire office."

McAfee's highly anticipated ruling on Friday followed a contentious, monthslong disqualification effort spearheaded by Trump and his co-defendants over allegations of misconduct against Willis, which she has fiercely denied.

Roman and several other Trump co-defendants first sought Willis' disqualification from the election case over allegations that she benefited financially from her romantic relationship with prosecutor Wade, whom she hired for the case, through vacations they took that were often booked on his credit card.

Willis and Wade admitted to the relationship, but said it "does not amount to a disqualifying conflict of interest" and that the relationship "has never involved direct or indirect financial benefit to District Attorney Willis." The DA testified that she often paid Wade back in cash for trips they took.

McAfee held several days of hearings to hear arguments over the allegations, during which both Willis and Wade took the stand to deliver emotional testimony.

Outside of allegations of financial misconduct, a debate later emerged over the exact timeline of their romantic relationship. Trump's attorney said both Willis and Wade were "not truthful" when they testified that the relationship began in 2022, after Wade was hired in 2021, urging the judge to disqualify them based on that testimony alone.

Willis' office dismissed the defendants' overall disqualification efforts as "absurd" and said there was "absolutely no evidence that [Willis] received any financial gain or benefit." They insisted that in order to disqualify her, the law requires the judge to find evidence of a conflict of interest or forensic misconduct.

Trump and 18 others pleaded not guilty last August to all charges in a sweeping racketeering indictment for alleged efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election in the state of Georgia.

Defendants Kenneth Chesebro, Sidney Powell, Jenna Ellis and Scott Hall subsequently took plea deals in exchange for agreeing to testify against other defendants.

The former president has dismissed the district attorney's investigation as being politically motivated.

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