Fani Willis, in Pursuit of a Trump Conviction, May Get Gagged for Defying Judge, ‘Talking About Race’

A clue to the district attorney’s allegedly reckless rhetoric — she has accused her critics of ‘playing the race card’ — could be that she is trying to win not only her trial, but also an election.

Miguel Martinez/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP
Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis speaks during a worship service at the Big Bethel AME Church, where she was invited as a guest speaker on January 14, 2024, at Atlanta. Miguel Martinez/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP

The latest declaration of the district attorney of Fulton County, Fani Willis — that  “recently, they tell me, they don’t like me to talk about race. Well, I’m going to talk about it anyway” — could put her in line for a gag order from Judge Scott McAfee. 

Those comments were made at an awards ceremony held in the Georgia county on Friday. They come a week after she boasted that “the train is coming” in respect of convicting President Trump and his co-defendants despite the ongoing efforts to remove her from the case. During a speech in January in observation of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, she accused her critics of “playing the race card,” an explosive charge at Fulton County, a majority-minority jurisdiction.

While no such order has been requested by Mr. Trump or his 18 co-defendants, Ms. Willis’s rhetorical razzle-dazzle around race could soon catch further judicial notice. Mr. Trump’s speech is already restrained in the District of Columbia and Manhattan because of his criminal trials there.

Ms. Willis is already skating on thin ice. The Georgia Court of Appeals is mulling a request by Mr. Trump et al. to disqualify her from the case on account of her relationship a special prosecutor, Nathan Wade, her former lover. Critics point to the $650,000 paid out to him and to the trips they took together. 

Judge McAfee found that entanglement to be accompanied by an “odor of mendacity,” but he also appeared sympathetic to a second ground for disqualification proffered by the defendants. That critique centers on the speech Ms. Willis delivered at Big Bethel AME Church. In that oration, she defended Mr. Wade as a “superstar” and criticism of his credentials as driven by race. 

Speaking of her critics — and her defendants —  Ms. Willis asked “isn’t it them that’s playing the race card when they only question one? Isn’t it them playing the race card when they constantly think I need someone from some other jurisdiction in some other state to tell me how to do a job I’ve been doing almost 30 years?” She said in respect of an award garnered by Mr. Wade, “You know they ain’t just giving this to Black men.”

Ms. Willis’s defendants argued in court that the district attorney’s comments amounted to an effort to taint the jury pool. The district attorney denied she was talking about the cadre she intends to convict. Judge McAfee’s response to that was, “Maybe so. But maybe not. Therein lies the danger of public comment by a prosecuting attorney.” He called her speech “legally improper.”

The judge, though, stopped short of disqualifying Ms. Willis. He reasoned that the case “is too far removed from jury selection to establish a permanent taint of the jury pool.” Judge McAfee, though, appears to be inviting a further challenge from the defendants. He wrote in his ruling 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.”

Judge McAfee, in order to underscore the point, added in his opinion that “providing this type of public comment creates dangerous waters for the District Attorney to wade further into.” One of Mr. Trump’s attorneys, Steven Sadow, took to X to note that “apparently Judge McAfee’s warning to Willis in his disqualification order about talking about the case in a public forum is simply being ignored. Does that surprise anyone??”

In the wake of the speech at the church, email messages surfaced where Ms. Willis wrote to counsel for the defendants asserting that “in the legal community (and the world at large), some people will never be able to respect African Americans and/or women as their equal and counterpart. That is a burden you do not experience.”  

Clues to Ms. Willis’s outspokenness — and possibly also to Judge McAfee’s decision, which, while critical of the prosecutor, allowed her to stay on if Mr. Wade left — could lie in electoral realities. She is a Democrat, while he is a Republican, but they both face challengers. President Biden claimed more than 72 percent of the vote in Fulton County in 2020.

While a pro-Trump Republican lawyer, Courtney Kramer, is running against Ms. Willis, the district attorney is likely more concerned about her left flank, in her primary in May. That is where a one-time Atlanta city solicitor and prosecutor, Christian Wise Smith, has positioned himself. He told his alma mater, Cooley Law School, that the justice system “is set up for people to fail. In Fulton County, the policies of systemic racism continue unabated.”

Judicial elections work differently. In Georgia, they are nonpartisan, and there is no primary. The vote will transpire on May 21, with a runoff, if necessary, to be held on June 18. Judge McAfee, just 34 years old, is running for a full four-year term after being appointed to the bench by Governor Kemp in 2022. He too faces a challenge from his left, in the person of an attorney and talk show host, Robert Patillo. 

Mr. Patillo is the erstwhile executive director of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition, the group founded by the Reverend Jesse Jackson. Mr. Patillo’s website describes him as an “Intellectual Militant.”


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