Judge denies Meadows’ bid to move Fulton case to fed court

Ruling is a win for Fulton DA in first major test of racketeering prosecution
After hours of testimony, Mark Meadows (center), the former White House Chief of Staff, is seen leaving the federal court in Atlanta on Monday, August 28, 2023. He appeared in an Atlanta courtroom to attempt the transfer of his Fulton County racketeering case to federal court.
Miguel Martinez /miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Credit: Miguel Martinez

After hours of testimony, Mark Meadows (center), the former White House Chief of Staff, is seen leaving the federal court in Atlanta on Monday, August 28, 2023. He appeared in an Atlanta courtroom to attempt the transfer of his Fulton County racketeering case to federal court. Miguel Martinez /miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com

A federal judge on Friday rejected a request from former White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows to move his Fulton County election interference case to U.S. District Court in Atlanta.

In a 49-page ruling, U.S. District Judge Steve Jones said Meadows did not meet the legal burden for demonstrating the case should be removed. He remanded it back to Fulton Superior Court.

“The Court declines to assume jurisdiction over the State’s criminal prosecution of Meadows,” Jones wrote.

His ruling means that the entirety of the 41-count racketeering case that Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis brought last month against Meadows, former President Donald Trump and 17 others will stay in Fulton court — at least for now.

Meadows’ legal team swiftly filed an appeal to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals late Friday. Meanwhile, four other defendants have also filed for federal removal, and Trump recently indicated he would do the same in the weeks ahead.

Jones’ decision is a major victory for Willis in the first significant legal test of her sweeping racketeering case. She has fought to keep the proceedings in Fulton County. Should Meadows or any other defendant be successful, it’s likely the whole case for all 19 defendants would move to federal court, where the jury pool is broader — and slightly more conservative — and cameras aren’t allowed.

A Willis spokesman declined to comment.

Meadows has been charged with violating the state’s anti-racketeering law and one other felony: soliciting Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to violate his oath of office during the infamous Jan. 2, 2021, phone call in which former President Donald Trump asked the secretary to “find” him 11,780 votes, one more than was needed to overturn Georgia’s results.

Jones ruled that, while Meadows was clearly a federal officer as Trump’s top White House aide, he was not acting in his federal capacity in bolstering Trump the candidate.

”The evidence adduced at the hearing establishes that the actions at the heart of the State’s charges against Meadows were taken on behalf of the Trump campaign with an ultimate goal of affecting state election activities and procedures,” wrote Jones, an appointee of former President Barack Obama.

“Meadows himself testified that working for the Trump campaign would be outside the scope of a White House chief of staff,” he added.

Portrait dedication of U.S. District Court Judge Steve Jones - 10/5/18. Photo credit: University of Georgia School of Law

Credit: University of Georgia

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Credit: University of Georgia

Meadows’ had cited the 234-year-old federal removal statute, which allows federal officials charged with state crimes to move them to federal court if the alleged criminal behavior was carried out as part of a person’s official duties.

To transfer the case, Meadows had to show he was a federal official at the time of his alleged crime, prove the alleged criminal activities occurred under his official duties and provide a “colorable” federal defense.

Meadows took to the witness stand for roughly four hours last week during a hearing before Jones. He argued that he had an expansive role as chief of staff that included interfacing with state officials and staying abreast of news developments, including the 2020 election results, in order to properly advise and manage Trump. He said that all eight of the “overt acts” attributed to him in the indictment fell squarely within his federal role.

Among the overt acts are his Dec. 22, 2020, visit to Cobb County where an audit of absentee ballot signatures was being conducted; his texting a Secretary of State official about the Trump campaign paying for a Fulton County audit that Trump desired; and Meadows coordinating phone calls with Trump and Raffensperger and, separately, elections investigator Frances Watson.

Jones found that only one of the overt acts attributed to Meadows could have been within the scope of his official duties: sending a text message to U.S. Rep. Scott Perry, R-Pennsylvania, to get phone numbers for legislative leaders. But the judge ruled the evidence does not support Meadows’ contention that other acts fell within his White House duties.

Meadows is one of five defendants charged in the Fulton County racketeering case who has pushed to remove his case to federal court and his case was the first to receive a hearing.

Of the five, many legal experts believed that Meadows had the best argument for moving the proceedings to federal court.

The others are Jeffrey Clark, a former top Justice Department official, as well as former state Republican Party Chairman David Shafer, state Sen. Shawn Still and former Coffee County GOP chairwoman Cathy Latham. Shafer, Still and Latham were among the 16 Republican electors who met in December 2020 to cast their votes for Donald Trump, even though Democrat Joe Biden narrowly won the presidential race in Georgia.

A lawyer for Trump also filed a notice this week that the former president may seek a removal to federal court as well.

In his ruling on Friday, Jones took no position on whether Meadows violated the Hatch Act, which prohibits federal employees from engaging in political activities while on the job. But he concluded that the evidence “overwhelmingly suggests that Meadows was not acting in his scope of executive branch duties during most of the overt Acts alleged.

”Even if Meadows took on tasks that mirror the duties that he carried out when acting in his official role as White House Chief of Staff (such as attending meetings, scheduling phone calls, and managing the President’s time) he has failed to demonstrate how the election-related activities that serve as the basis for the charges in the Indictment are related to any of his official acts,” the judge wrote.

Jones said he was not offering “any opinion about the State’s case against Meadows” or “on the merits of the charges against Meadows or any defense that he may offer.”

He also said his decision on Meadows would not affect the outcome of other defendants’ motions to have their cases removed to federal court.

“The Court does not take lightly these standards in rendering its conclusion that federal officer removal is not supported here,” Jones concluded. “Rather, the Court concludes that if it were to agree with Meadows’s arguments regarding removal, the Court would have to turn a blind eye to express constitutional power granted to the States to determine their election procedures, as well as federal statutory and regulatory limitations on political activities of executive branch officials.”