Highlights of the Judge’s Decision in the Georgia Trump Case

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A judge overseeing the criminal election interference case against former President Donald J. Trump in Georgia declined on Friday to disqualify the district attorney leading the prosecution, Fani T. Willis, over a romantic relationship she had with the lawyer she hired to manage the case, Nathan J. Wade.

But even as the judge, Scott McAfee of Fulton County Superior Court, rejected the claim by one of Mr. Trump’s co-defendants, Mike Roman, that the relationship raised an actual conflict of interest by giving Ms. Willis a financial stake in the case, the judge also ruled that it raised “a significant appearance of impropriety.”

The judge gave her two choices: either Mr. Wade leaves her prosecution team, or she and her office must step aside from the case.

Here are highlights from the 23-page ruling:

Alone, each of the two main issues raised by the defense — that Mr. Wade is being paid by the hour, and that two members of the prosecution team were having a relationship — would not be a problem. But combined, they raise an deeper issue, the judge wrote.

The judge wrote that Willis’s claim that she had reimbursed Mr. Wade in cash for trips they took together was “unusual” and “understandably concerning” but was “not so incredible as to be inherently unbelievable,” and the evidence did not establish that she had received any material benefit as a result of her decision to hire and engage in a romantic relationship with Mr. Wade.

And, more important, the judge found, the evidence demonstrated that financial gain was “not a motivating factor” on Willis’s part in indicting and prosecuting the case.

While deciding that the evidence did not show there was an actual conflict of interest, the judge nevertheless suggested that the prosecutor’s conduct was problematic in a way that others — including an ethics commission and voters — may wish to address.

Even when no actual conflict exists, the judge wrote, “a perceived conflict in the reasonable eyes of the public threatens confidence in the legal system itself.” The combination of factors that made the question of whether Ms. Willis had a conflict legitimate, he wrote, means such an appearance of impropriety persists in the case.

The judge also wrote that “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,” adding that, “As long as Wade remains on the case, this unnecessary perception will persist.”

Expressing skepticism about testimony regarding when the relationship between Ms. Willis and Mr. Wade evolved into a romantic one, the judge portrayed the continued commingling of professional and personal relationships as untenable.

There has been no showing that the two prosecutors’ relationship violated the defendants’ rights or hurt them in any way, the judge wrote, and disqualifying Ms. Willis is unnecessary when there is a less drastic remedy available: Mr. Wade can leave the prosecution team.

The defense had also asked the judge to disqualify Ms. Willis over public remarks she has made, including at a church in Atlanta on Jan. 14 in which she complained vaguely about her detractors and accused them of playing “the race card.” While finding that her comments did not amount to improperly trying the case in public, the judge nevertheless scolded her and suggested that he may soon issue a gag order to prevent further public comments.

Summing up, the judge wrote that regardless of the outcome of the case, it is important that how it unfolds instills public confidence in the fairness and legitimacy of the process. While there is not a legal basis to support a finding that the district attorney has an actual conflict of interest, he found that the appearance of impropriety must nevertheless be addressed — signaling that Mr. Wade needs to leave the prosecution team in one manner or another.


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