In inaugural campaign, Fulton Trump judge stresses law over politics

Scott McAfee acknowledges but largely steers clear of Trump case on the trail
Fulton County Superior Court Judge Scott McAfee, nonpartisan, speaks during the 2024 Town Hall for North Fulton Democratic and Nonpartisan Candidates at Memories Event Space, Tuesday, April 30, 2024, in Johns Creek, Ga.  (Jason Getz / AJC)

Credit: Jason Getz/AJC

Credit: Jason Getz/AJC

Fulton County Superior Court Judge Scott McAfee, nonpartisan, speaks during the 2024 Town Hall for North Fulton Democratic and Nonpartisan Candidates at Memories Event Space, Tuesday, April 30, 2024, in Johns Creek, Ga. (Jason Getz / AJC)

He started his presentation to the Sandy Springs Rotary Club by explaining how the Fulton County Superior Court works. But after a few minutes Scott McAfee switched gears, delving into what he described as his “personal research project.”

Working through a slideshow that included historic drawings, a quote from Winston Churchill and another from, yes, the 1997 Nicolas Cage thriller “Con Air,” the rookie judge spent the next half hour explaining how Georgia’s criminal justice system of today evolved out of its late 17th century English roots.

As McAfee nerded out, two-dozen mostly silver-haired attendees followed along, sipping iced teas and finishing their salmon and rice lunches. Examining the past, McAfee said, helps give people “an appreciation for how we’ve evolved over time and how we’ve gotten a little better” — and which areas could be improved.

It was McAfee’s first time speaking to a Rotary Club, he admitted, and his first time running for office as he seeks a full, four-year term on the bench.

But most first-time candidates haven’t been at the center of wall-to-wall cable news coverage or authored rulings that have steered one of the highest-profile criminal cases in the nation involving the former — and perhaps future — president of the United States.

The cello-playing Millennial had been a judge for just six months when he was randomly assigned last summer to oversee the election interference case. But the 34-year-old father of two quickly established, with the deftness of someone two or three decades his senior, that he was the one in charge of his courtroom. Typically buttoned-up and soft-spoken on the bench, McAfee has tucked references to Monty Python and Tennessee Williams into his opinions, like when he wrote that “an odor of mendacity remains” from the district attorney’s testimony at a recent hearing.

As a candidate, McAfee is smilier, more relaxed and eager to explain the intricacies of Fulton’s legal system. He was even spotted wearing jeans as he marched in an intown Atlanta parade with his wife, kids and staff.

Judicial rules bar McAfee from discussing how he’ll decide the weighty issues before him, including the racketeering case against Trump and 14 of his allies. But that hasn’t dampened his drive on campaign trail, where he shares his judicial priorities, a sunny message about the direction of his courtroom and the occasional peek into his personal interests.

Fulton County Superior Court Judge Scott McAfee is seen while participating in the Inman Park Parade on Saturday, April 27, 2024, in Atlanta. (Elijah Nouvelage for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Elijah Nouvelage

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Credit: Elijah Nouvelage

Challengers rare

Georgia’s judicial races tend to be low-key affairs. Most contests, including McAfee’s, are non-partisan. They’re also held in May, when few but the most clued-in voters are paying attention.

The overwhelming majority of incumbents go unchallenged. But McAfee is an exception. The University of Georgia Law graduate is among the only 4% of Superior Court judges in the state to draw an opponent this year.

“First-time judges, if there’s going to be a challenge, they tend to draw (them in) their first time out,” said Robert Highsmith, an attorney and long-time member of the state Judicial Nomination Commission, which vets judicial appointments for the governor, including for vacancies on the Fulton Superior Court.

McAfee’s role as the judge in the polarizing Trump case may have also helped attract opponents.

He is being challenged on May 21 by Robert Patillo, a civil rights attorney and media pundit, and Tiffani Johnson, a former Fulton assistant solicitor who is fighting to stay in the race after being disqualified in the wake of a residency challenge. Each has argued they have a background that better suits the job and the county, but both have struggled to raise money.

No public polling has been released in the race, but McAfee is seen as the overwhelming favorite. In addition to his high-profile work on the election case, he has a commanding $320,000 in his campaign war chest and earned a raft of bipartisan endorsements, including from Republican Gov. Brian Kemp, who appointed him to the bench in late 2022; former Gov. Roy Barnes, a Democrat; multiple former state Supreme Court justices; and several Democratic lawmakers serving in the Legislature and Atlanta City Council.

Eric Segall, a Georgia State University law professor, said he believes McAfee attracted challengers this year because of the inherently political nature of the Trump case. But he doesn’t think McAfee’s conduct in that or other matters will cause voters to turn against him.

“Usually when state judicial elections get contested it’s either because of a once-in-a-generation issue like same-sex marriage or there are corruption issues,” Segall said, noting that McAfee isn’t facing any corruption allegations and that the judge’s conduct in the election case has overall been viewed favorably.

“I think he’s done a terrific job under horribly difficult, pressurized circumstances,” he added.

‘Did the best I could’

Despite his advantages in the race, McAfee is taking the campaign seriously. He has RSVPed yes to nearly every invitation he’s received, eager to show there’s still a place for nonpartisanship in the judiciary.

The week he spoke at the Sandy Springs Rotary lunch, he marched in the Inman Park Day Parade and attended a candidate forum in front of more than 100 die-hard Democrats in Johns Creek. He also participated in a campaign fundraiser headlined by Barnes and Kemp that netted his campaign roughly $40,000.

Gov. Brian Kemp, Judge Scott McAfee and former Gov. Roy Barnes. Contributed.

Credit: Courtesy photo

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Credit: Courtesy photo

“He is an ethical, just principled person that is following the law, not trying to make it,” said Kemp at the event, before quipping that McAfee needed to “learn how to pick cases better.”

The joke wasn’t lost on McAfee, a former state inspector general and prosecutor who for the last nine months has worked his way through a raft of pretrial motions from some of the best defense attorneys in the state.

Nothing reached the level of pressure and attention as the effort to remove Fulton DA Fani Willis from the case due to her onetime romantic relationship with Nathan Wade, the then-top prosecutor on the matter.

Trying to square different sets of facts presented by the DA’s office and defendants, McAfee convened an evidentiary hearing in February that was carried live by national news networks and featured dramatic testimony by Willis, Wade and others.

The multi-day hearing dredged up deeply personal information about the DA’s sex life and finances, angering some of her most vocal supporters. And McAfee’s eventual ruling, which was highly critical of Willis but paved the way for her to continue leading the case, also drew the ire of some of Trump’s backers, who pointed out that McAfee had worked for Willis earlier in his career and donated a small amount to her 2020 campaign before he became a judge.

Fulton County Special Prosecutor Nathan Wade testifies during a hearing on the Georgia election interference case, Thursday, Feb. 15, 2024, in Atlanta. The hearing is to determine whether Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis should be removed from the case because of a relationship with Wade, special prosecutor she hired in the election interference case against former President Donald Trump. (Alyssa Pointer/Pool Photo via AP)

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Credit: AP

McAfee has shrugged off the critiques.

“No job is worth my integrity,” he told WSB Radio earlier this spring. “I’ve got two kids, 5 and 3. They’re too young to have any idea of what’s going on or what I do. But what I’m looking forward to one day is maybe they will grow up a little bit and they ask me about it. I’m looking forward to looking them in the eye and telling them I played it straight and I did the best I could.”

Other priorities

On the campaign trail, McAfee acknowledges his highest-profile case but also notes that it’s just one of some 170 he currently has pending.

One of his major focuses has been working his way through the backlog of cases he inherited. (When he was sworn in early last year, he said had 52 murder cases on his plate. Now he’s down to 20. There were roughly 100 people in jail awaiting trial, now there are 37, he said.)

McAfee attributes the improvements to knowing how to steer prosecutors and defense attorneys to trial quickly. In an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, he compared efficient case management to gardening.

“You’re trimming and poking and prodding and it’s just a daily kind of maintenance. But it pays off over time,” McAfee said. “I think the results kind of show.”

Trump’s criminal case in Fulton is unique because it is the only one involving the former president in which cameras are allowed. McAfee emphasizes the importance of livestreaming proceedings from his courtroom.

“The idea of sending that message of transparency is really, really important,” McAfee told the Rotary Club meeting. “There’s nothing that I should be saying in a courtroom that I don’t want anyone in the world to hear.”

Some of McAfee’s critics have drawn attention to his leadership role in the Federalist Society while in law school. McAfee says he’s not an active member of the influential conservative and libertarian legal group.

He said the state Supreme Court “has made it quite clear that in Georgia the way we’re supposed to interpret the law is through the lens of textualism,” which is an approach favored by the Federalist Society. “You start with the statute and try to glean the intent from the words of the statute.”

McAfee sums up his judicial philosophy, however, in other ways.

“Approaching cases with humility,” he told The AJC. “Giving everyone their chance to be heard, speak their piece. The litigants are the most important people in their room, not the judge. It’s putting in the work, recognizing my role and staying in my lane.”

Judge Scott McAfee and Robert Patillo

Credit: AJC

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Credit: AJC

Challengers emphasize credentials

The same judicial rules limiting what McAfee can comment on also apply to his two challengers, who have been relatively muted in their direct criticism of the incumbent.

Patillo called McAfee an “outstanding judge” in a recent interview, but argued the county would be better served by a jurist with experience as a defense attorney who has tried many types of cases, as opposed to someone like McAfee who spent most of his career as a prosecutor.

“If you’re going to be sentencing somebody to life in prison as a judge, I believe you should have the experience of sitting there as a defense lawyer defending somebody who’s fighting to not be in prison for life,” said Patillo, noting that he has also worked on civil litigation, family and property law cases.

The former executive director of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition, the social justice and civil rights group founded by Rev. Jesse Jackson, Patillo has also vowed to enact policies to cut down on wait times for trial. He promotes restorative justice programs for juvenile offenders, which include mandating that young people finish their high school educations or complete apprenticeship programs as part of their sentences.

“If we do that with more of our young people, then we can stop the recidivism rates that we have,” said Patillo, who previously ran for a statehouse seat as a moderate Democrat.

Patillo has largely refrained from criticizing McAfee’s handling of the Trump case, though he said there are things he would have done differently during the Willis disqualification hearing to tamp down on the fireworks.

Patillo has raised less than $12,000 for his campaign as of the end of April. Tiffani Johnson, McAfee’s second challenger who was disqualified last month, has pulled in slightly more than $17,000.

Earlier this week, Johnson appealed a judicial decision that concluded she was ineligible to compete to the Supreme Court of Georgia.

“I’ve been in Fulton County throughout my career,” said Johnson, a former public defender and defense attorney. “This is just a continued sign of commitment showing the community what I want to do in Fulton County.”

Johnson said if she wins she would focus on moving cases expeditiously and ensuring that “everybody that comes before the court, no matter who they are or what they do, (is) treated with respect and kindness.”

Attorney Tiffani Johnson (photo provided)

Credit: Shannon McCaffrey

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Credit: Shannon McCaffrey

Staff writer Rosie Manins contributed to this article.