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Takeaways From the Ruling on Georgia Trump Prosecutor’s Conduct

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Takeaways From the Ruling on Georgia Trump Prosecutor’s Conduct

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The much-anticipated ruling on whether Fani T. Willis should be disqualified from prosecuting former President Donald J. Trump and 14 of his allies in Georgia came on Friday, requiring her to make an unusual decision.

Ms. Willis, the district attorney in Fulton County, Ga., can keep control of the state election interference case that has been more than three years in the making, but only if Nathan J. Wade, a former boyfriend, withdraws from the case, which she hired him to manage.

For much of this year, headlines and hearings delving into the romantic relationship between the two prosecutors have overshadowed the case itself, in which the defendants are charged with conspiring to thwart the will of Georgia voters after Mr. Trump lost the 2020 presidential election.

Defense lawyers brought to light the relationship between the prosecutors, saying it had created an untenable conflict of interest. But Judge Scott McAfee of Fulton Superior Court rejected that argument on Friday, while sharply criticizing Ms. Willis for a “tremendous lapse in judgment.”

Here are takeaways from the ruling:

Judge McAfee said there was not enough proof to find that Ms. Willis’s “personal relationship and recurring travels with her lead prosecutor” created “an actual conflict of interest.”

He added that “Georgia law does not permit the finding of an actual conflict for simply making bad choices — even repeatedly — and it is the trial court’s duty to confine itself to the relevant issues and applicable law properly brought before it.”

But the judge did find that “the appearance of impropriety remains” and needs to be remedied. He concluded that “the prosecution of this case cannot proceed until the state selects one of two options.” Either Ms. Willis can step aside, along with her entire office, or Mr. Wade can leave, allowing the case to proceed without further distraction.

He emphasized that the appearance problem had to be fixed.

“When this danger goes uncorrected, it undermines the legitimacy and moral force of our already weakest branch of government,” he wrote.

The judge once worked for Ms. Willis in the district attorney’s office, and by all accounts had a positive experience with her as a boss. But in the ruling, he was harshly critical of her conduct, and not just because of the optics of carrying on a relationship with a subordinate on such a high-profile case.

He also criticized public comments she has made about the case and referred to “the unprofessional manner of the district attorney’s testimony” when she testified at a combative hearing last month.

Noting that neither side offered definitive proof of when the romance began, Judge McAfee wrote that “an odor of mendacity remains” about the matter, as do “reasonable questions” about whether Ms. Willis and Mr. Wade “testified untruthfully about the timing of their relationship.” Both told the judge that it started only after Ms. Willis hired Mr. Wade in November 2021.

The judge rejected a key contention of the defense: that Ms. Willis had benefited financially from the case, since her romantic partner was being paid to run it and had paid, at least in part, for vacations they took together.

Judge McAfee noted that Ms. Willis brought charges against far fewer people than a special grand jury had recommended for indictment, undercutting the suggestion that she was trying to inflate legal billings around the case.

“The district attorney has not in any way acted in conformance with the theory that she arranged a financial scheme to enrich herself,” the judge wrote.

The judge appeared to invite the defense to seek a gag order to stop Ms. Willis from publicly discussing the case. He said that Ms. Willis, who is Black, had publicly “cast racial aspersions” on the defense’s decision to bring her relationship with Mr. Wade to light.

He was referring to a January speech that Ms. Willis made at a local church, when she suggested that the scrutiny of her decision to hire Mr. Wade was racist. The motion alleging a conflict of interest was filed on Jan. 8 by Ashleigh Merchant, a lawyer for Michael Roman, a defendant who is a former Trump campaign operative.

The judge said the church speech was “too far removed from jury selection to establish a permanent taint of the jury pool,” but expressed concern nonetheless.

He also referred to what he called Ms. Willis’s “unorthodox decision to make on-the-record comments” to the authors of a recent book, “Find Me the Votes,” by the journalists Michael Isikoff and Daniel Klaidman, noting that she spoke to the authors “during the pendency of this case.”

Judge McAfee wrote that “the time may well have arrived for an order preventing the state from mentioning the case in any public forum to prevent prejudicial pretrial publicity.”

Mr. Trump’s lead lawyer in Georgia, Steven H. Sadow, said, “We believe that the court did not afford appropriate significance to the prosecutorial misconduct of Willis and Wade,” adding that “we will use all legal options available as we continue to fight to end this case, which should never have been brought in the first place.”

The defense will almost certainly seek to appeal, but the judge has to grant approval for them to do so ahead of a trial.

When the case might go to trial remains unclear. Last year, Ms. Willis asked for a trial to start this August, but the judge has yet to set a date. Even with the ruling against disqualification, most legal observers believe a trial is unlikely to start this year.

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