Court halts Georgia Trump election case until DA Fani Willis appeal decided


                        Former President Donald Trump during a news conference at Trump Tower in New York, New York, Friday, May 31, 2024. Trump’s lawyers on Tuesday, June 4, asked the judge who oversaw the former president’s criminal trial to lift a gag order on their client as the presidential campaign intensifies. (Doug Mills/The New York Times)

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Former President Donald Trump during a news conference at Trump Tower in New York, New York, Friday, May 31, 2024. Trump’s lawyers on Tuesday, June 4, asked the judge who oversaw the former president’s criminal trial to lift a gag order on their client as the presidential campaign intensifies. (Doug Mills/The New York Times)

Fulton County’s election interference case against former President Donald Trump may have ground to a halt Wednesday as the state Court of Appeals issued an order staying any further work until it decides whether District Attorney Fani Willis should be disqualified.

This means that Superior Court Judge Scott McAfee, who had planned to move forward on the case, may have to wait until it is sent back to him. The appeals court is considering whether to remove Willis and her office from the case because of her romance with the outside attorney she hired as a Trump special prosecutor. The court is also weighing an appeal by the DA’s office which wants to reinstate six of the criminal counts in the racketeering indictment which McAfee dismissed.

The order is the latest setback for the Georgia case, which at one point seemed like it could be could the first of the four Trump criminal prosecutions to go to trial.

Instead, a jury in Manhattan last week found Trump guilty on 34 felony counts involving hush money payments he paid to a porn star to cover up their alleged sexual encounter. It marked the first criminal conviction of a former president.

Meanwhile in Georgia the battle over Willis’ conduct has helped to delay the case against Trump and his 14 remaining co-defendants for months.

“This means there is no way the trial will be held prior to the November elections,” said Marietta attorney Ashleigh Merchant, who represents defendant Mike Roman, a former Trump campaign official, and who first brought the Willis disqualification challenge. “That’s significant.”

The appeals court, if it agrees to hold oral arguments, has indicated it will do so some time in the fall, and it must issue its decision by mid-March. Because none of the defendants had requested a stay, this means the appeals court decided on its own to issue the stay, leading some observers to speculate the court may ultimately reverse McAfee’s decision and disqualify Willis and her office.

Steve Sadow, Trump’s lead attorney, said the appeals court “properly stayed all proceedings against President Trump in the trial court pending its decision.” He said the racketeering case “should be dismissed and Fulton County DA Willis should be disqualified for her misconduct.”

Defense attorney Don Samuel, who represents defendant Ray Smith, an Atlanta lawyer, said he was not surprised by the appeals court’s decision.

“Basically, the court is saying we are going to litigate this case in one court at a time and it’s now in the Court of Appeals,” he said.

The DA’s office said it had no comment on the appeals court’s order.

Defense attorney Andrew Fleischman, who specializes in appeals and is closely following the case, said it’s possible that McAfee could continue working on the case and even issue orders under the caveat they would not take effect until the case is returned to him.

“I’ve never had a judge continue doing stuff on a case after an appeal has been granted,” he said. “But it’s possible he could continue because it’s clear he wants to move the case along.”

Also, while the Court of Appeals said it was staying the proceedings, only nine of the remaining in the case are appealing the disqualification ruling. Smith will become a 10th defendant in the appeal because the DA’s office is challenging Smith’s motion that led to McAfee’s order dismissing six counts from the indictment.

Unclear is whether the stay affects the remaining five defendants: state Sen. Shawn Still, lawyer John Eastman, police chaplain Stephen Cliffgard Lee, publicist Trevian Kutti and former Coffee County elections supervisor Misty Hampton.

On Thursday, attorney John Monroe, who represents Hampton, filed a motion asking McAfee to stay the proceedings in her case. Monroe noted it was not clear whether the appeals court intended the stay to extend to all proceedings in the case or only those involving the nine defendants appealing the disqualification order.

“Out of an abundance of caution, therefore, (Hampton) moves to a stay of proceedings in her case pending the resolution of the referenced appeals,” Monroe wrote. He added: “(A)s a matter of judicial economy, it does not make sense to stay some of the prosecutions, but not all, in the same case.”

The case is before a three-judge appeals court panel comprised of Trent Brown, Benjamin Land and Todd Markle.

Still pending before McAfee are defense motions to strike the racketeering count from the indictment, which all the remaining defendants face. The judge was also weighing subpoenas issued by lawyers for defendant Harrison Floyd seeking detailed election information that Floyd said he believes will show Trump won the 2020 election.

Attorneys for former President Donald Trump and seven co-defendants in the Fulton election interference case are asking a Superior Court judge for permission to appeal his recent decision that has kept District Attorney Fani Willis at the helm of the prosecution. (Natrice Miller/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

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Judge Scott McAfee presides over a hearing regarding media access in the case against former President Donald Trump and 18 others, at the Fulton County Courthouse in Atlanta on Aug. 31, 2023. (Arvin Temkar/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

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FILE - In this combination of photos, President Joe Biden speaks on Aug. 10, 2023, in Salt Lake City, from left, former President Donald Trump speaks on July 8, 2023, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo, File)

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