Fani Willis’s ‘Logistical Quagmire’ Could Be Donald Trump’s Legal Sweet Spot

The district attorney appears increasingly worried about the viability of the trial strategy she devised.

AP/Alex Brandon
President Trump steps off his plane at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, August 24, 2023. AP/Alex Brandon

The allegations by President Trump’s former chief of staff, Mark Meadows, that “serious constitutional concerns” have marred his prosecution in Georgia could upend District Attorney Fani Willis’s sprawling racketeering case before it achieves liftoff. Could her prosecution be too big to function? 

In choosing to indict 19 defendants on 41 charges, Ms. Willis went big in prosecuting efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election in the Peach Tree State. It is a scale to which she claims to be accustomed — a racketeering trial of public school teachers netted 35 defendants, 12 of whom were tried together. 

Now, though, court filings show Ms. Willis fretting over a “logistical quagmire” and, Cassandra-like, alerting the presiding state court judge, Scott McAfee, to the “unavoidable burdens on witnesses and victims” should he splinter her sprawling case. The government’s position is that, like Isaiah Berlin’s hedgehog, it can try one large case, but not many smaller ones.      

Mr. Meadows is working to move his case to federal court by arguing that the allegations against him stem from actions he undertook as a federal employee. He hopes to convince the riders of the 11th Circuit of the United States Court of Appeals that removal is in order because the “case involves the Chief of Staff to the President, not an oil or tobacco company or some other individual.” The riders will hear his arguments over Zoom on Friday. 

The congressman of Kansas turned White House chief of staff explains to the riders that this is not a case where he “went down to Georgia in his private capacity and got in some kerfuffle.” Rather, it is a criminal prosecution “based on actions taken in the White House while discharging his official duties.” He adds that the district court’s rebuff of his case for removal was “completely wrong” and marred by “erroneous pronouncements.”

Ms. Willis maintains in a filing that “all the defendants shall be tried together” and that Georgia “is capable of trying large and complex cases.” She “is ready to try all 19 defendants together.” The prosecutor warns that “breaking this case up into multiple lengthy trials would create an enormous strain on the judicial resources of the Fulton County Superior Court.” 

The district attorney has to worry not only about a rush to federal court by Mr. Meadows and four other defendants, but also about maneuvers to tangle her trial timeline. Two defendants, the attorneys Kenneth Chesebro and Sidney Powell, have already exercised their right to a speedy trial. Ms. Willis now warns Judge McAfee that the “potential consequence could be a cascade of additional speedy trial demands.” 

A lawyer for one defendant, Ray Smith III, an attorney accused of aiding in the alternate elector scheme, argues that his trial should be severed, or stand alone, because Ms. Willis’s “case involves too many defendants … too many disparate predicate acts, too many prosecution witnesses, and a complex array of relationships.” 

Mr. Trump has fastened on this complexity to push for a more distant trial horizon. He argues to Judge McAfee that “requiring less than two months preparation time to defend a 98-page indictment, charging 19 defendants, with 41 various charges” would violate his “federal and state constitutional rights to a fair trial and due process of law.”

Judge McAfee has called Ms. Willis’s aspirations for a plus-sized trial “unrealistic” even as the district attorney warned of the “inevitable harm to victims and witnesses, and the risk of gamesmanship” that would ensue from skinny trials. By “gamesmanship,” she could mean maneuvering to push trials past the 2024 election, or to delay sufficiently to force the prosecution to prematurely show its evidentiary hand. 

It appears as if Ms. Willis has a specific worst-case scenario in mind. She worries over a “cascade of additional speedy trial demands emanating from the severed defendants,” which could force the “Fulton County Court System to simultaneously accommodate three or more trials, on the same facts, before three or more sets of judges and juries.” She predicts that a “host of security issues” would ensue.

The right to a speedy trial, in both Georgia and the United States Constitution, is meant to be “enjoyed” by the “accused,” not the prosecution, suggesting that courts could not be entirely sympathetic to Ms. Willis’s fear of a blitz of requests from many defendants.    

The Supreme Court, though, has indicated its preference that defendants be amalgamated. In 1987, Justice Scalia wrote that a multitude of trials “would impair both the efficiency and the fairness of the criminal justice system” and “randomly” favor the “last-tried defendants who have the advantage of knowing the prosecution’s case beforehand.”

The New York Sun

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