Key takeaways from the Fani Willis ruling

The personal relationship between Fulton County DA Fani Willis, left, and special prosecutor Nathan Wade, right, has come under scrutiny during the Georgia election interference case. (Alyssa Pointer & John Bazemore/AP)

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

The personal relationship between Fulton County DA Fani Willis, left, and special prosecutor Nathan Wade, right, has come under scrutiny during the Georgia election interference case. (Alyssa Pointer & John Bazemore/AP)

Fulton County Superior Court Judge Scott McAfee on Friday ruled that District Attorney Fani Willis can remain at the helm of her election interference case against former President Donald Trump. But to do so, special prosecutor Nathan Wade must withdraw.

Hours later, Wade tendered his resignation.

Here are some of the key takeaways from his 23-page decision:

No actual conflict of interest

McAfee said the defense failed to prove that the trips Wade and Willis took together amounted to an actual conflict of interest.

“Simply put, the Defendants have not presented sufficient evidence indicating that the expenses were not ‘roughly divided evenly,’ or that the District Attorney was, or currently remains, ‘greatly and pecuniarily interested’ in this prosecution,” McAfee wrote.

Fulton County Superior Judge Scott McAfee presides in court during a hearing in the case of the State of Georgia v. Donald John Trump at the Fulton County Courthouse on March 1, 2024, in Atlanta. (Alex Slitz/Pool/Getty Images/TNS)

Credit: TNS

icon to expand image

Credit: TNS

The judge said that certain facts contradicted the accusation that Willis was trying to profit off the Trump prosecution. For instance, he said, Willis has pushed for an aggressive timetable to bring the case to trial. He also noted that she ultimately indicted fewer people than the special grand jury had recommended face criminal charges.

“(T)he District Attorney has not in any way acted in conformance with the theory that she arranged a financial scheme to enrich herself (or endear herself to Wade) by extending the duration of this prosecution or engaging in excessive litigation,” he wrote.

Prosecution is “encumbered by an appearance of impropriety”

Still, McAfee said that Willis’ prosecution team has “a significant appearance of impropriety” as currently structured and that it would need to change for the case to move forward.

“An outsider could reasonably think that the District Attorney is not exercising her independent professional judgment totally free of any compromising influences,” he wrote. “As long as Wade remains on the case, this unnecessary perception will persist.”

He noted that Willis had testified that her relationship with Wade has only “cemented” by the allegations and “is stronger than ever.”

“As the case moves forward, 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,” he wrote.

‘Star witness’ lacked credibility

The judge was unmoved by the testimony of Terrence Bradley, Wade’s former law partner and divorce lawyer, who had been billed as the “star witness“ for the defense.

Before defense attorney Ashleigh Merchant filed her motion to disqualify Willis, Bradley had told her in texts that Wade’s relationship with Willis “absolutely” began before she hired him. But on the stand, Bradley was evasive and often said he couldn’t recall details or didn’t know why he answered Merchant’s questions in particular ways.

McAfee says he was “unable to place any stock in the testimony of Terrence Bradley. His inconsistencies, demeanor and generally non-responsive answers left far too brittle a foundation upon which to build any conclusions.”

Meanwhile, McAfee said the testimony from former Willis friend and employee Robin Yeartie raised doubts about Willis and Wade’s relationship timeline but “ultimately lacked context and detail,” McAfee wrote.

Criticism of Willis and Wade

McAfee made clear that while he was allowing Willis to retain the election case he did not condone her behavior.

The way Willis conducted her relationship with Wade showed “tremendous lapse of judgement,” he wrote. He also called Willis’ combative testimony at an evidentiary hearing last month “unprofessional.”

Wade was also subject to criticism, especially for his answers to questions — called on interrogatories — related to his pending divorce.

Wade’s “patently unpersuasive explanations for the inaccurate interrogatories he submitted in his pending divorce indicates a willingness on his part to wrongly conceal a relationship with the District Attorney,” he said.

Questions about who told the truth

Defense attorneys, pointing to testimony from Yeartie and texts from Bradley, argued that Willis and Wade weren’t truthful with the court about when their relationship began.

McAfee concluded that “neither side was able to establish by a preponderance of the evidence when the relationship evolved into a romantic one.”

Still, he wouldn’t let Willis and Wade off the hook. While he said it wasn’t the court’s obligation to “ferret out every instance of potential dishonesty from each witness or defendant ever presented in open court,” there were “reasonable questions” about whether Willis and Wade testified truthfully about the timing of their relationship.

That, he said, “further underpins the finding of an appearance of impropriety and the need to make a reasonable effort to cure it.”

The church speech

McAfee disagreed with Trump’s attorneys that Willis’ Martin Luther King Jr. Day weekend remarks at a historic Black church in Atlanta constituted so-called forensic misconduct. But the judge cited the speech as a reason why Willis shouldn’t be making statements about the case outside of court.

During the speech, Willis lambasted her critics for playing the “race card” by targeting Wade, who is Black, and not her other two special prosecutors on the case, who are white. Tump’s attorneys said the remarks represented a “glaring, flagrant, and calculated effort to foment racial bias into this case” on behalf of future jurors.

Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis speaks during a worship service at the Big Bethel AME Church in Atlanta on Jan. 14, 2024. (Miguel Martinez/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

Credit: TNS

icon to expand image

Credit: TNS

McAfee said that while the speech didn’t cross the red line of denying the defendants a fundamentally fair trial, Willis’ remarks were “legally improper.” “Providing this type of public comment creates dangerous waters for the District Attorney to wade further into,” he said.

The judge raised the prospect of invoking a gag order, should defendants request one, barring the DA from mentioning the case “in any public forum to prevent prejudicial pretrial publicity.”