Trump Notches His First Win in Georgia — and Is Closer To Going It Alone at Trial
A state court judge rules that the 45th president does not have to stand trial next month.
Judge Scott McAfee’s ruling that President Trump and 16 other defendants will not stand trial in Georgia next month along with two of his erstwhile legal advisers could indicate a fundamental flaw in District Attorney Fani Willis’s design of the sprawling racketeering case against Mr. Trump and 18 others.
The decision, handed down Thursday in Fulton County’s Superior Court, is a victory for Mr. Trump, who was vindicated in his effort to sever his case from those of Sidney Powell and Kenneth Chesebro. The two lawyers, who were allegedly in the thick of plots to overturn the 2020 election result, exercised their statutory right to a speedy trial, to begin October 23.
Ms. Willis of Fulton County had insisted — over a cacophony of objections — that all 19 co-defendants in her election interference case be tried together. The decision surfaces the tension between the “more the merrier” approach of racketeering prosecutions and the protections of individual rights and due process enshrined in the Constitution.
In siding with the 45th president, Judge McAfee cited the “precarious ability of the Court to safeguard each defendant’s due process rights and ensure adequate pretrial preparation on the current accelerated track weighs heavily, if not decisively, in favor of severance.” That language suggests that more trials could be added to the docket.
The district attorney, in the course of bringing a case built around her state’s Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, has argued that the “criminal enterprise” she alleges was operating is best tried jointly, with common witnesses and evidence. If she convinces a jury of the existence of a shared scheme, it would, she apparently reckons, be easier to secure individual convictions.
Ms. Willis has maintained her preference for one large trial rather than a host of splinter ones even as her cohort of defendants has grown restless. In addition to Mr. Chesebro and Ms. Powell’s move for a speedy trial, five other defendants have attempted to remove their cases to federal court. Mr. Trump is expected to do the same. If any of those motions succeed, the cohort of defendants will be further fragmented.
Last week, Judge McAfee ruled that Ms. Powell and Mr. Chesebro would stand trial together on October 23. That was a victory for Ms. Willis, as both attorneys preferred to be tried on their own. The judge, in a preview of today’s ruling, disclosed himself to be “very skeptical” that they could be joined by 17 others for the start of a trial the week before Halloween.
The jurist requested elaboration from the district attorney on her desire for a large trial on an accelerated time frame. Now comes Ms. Willis to reason, “Breaking this case up into multiple, lengthy trials would create an enormous strain on the judicial resources of the Fulton County Superior Court,” resulting in a “logistical quagmire.”
The prosecutor’s office adds that “holding three or more simultaneous, high-profile trials would create a host of security issues and would create unavoidable burdens on witnesses and victims, who would be forced to testify three or more times on the same set of facts in the same case.” Ms. Willis’s office projects that the trial will last four months and involve 150 witnesses.
Judge McAfee opined during last week’s hearing that his “initial reaction” was that “it seems a bit unrealistic that we could handle all 19 in 40-something days.” Thursday’s decision, though, invoked not logistics but rather the constitutional guarantees of due process from the 14th Amendment. The jurist appears to be afraid that the rush to trial could affect Mr. Trump’s ability to mount an effective defense.
Also implicated in Judge McAfee’s decision is the Sixth Amendment right to a “speedy” trial, which the Constitution ordains is “enjoyed” not by the state but by the “accused.” Georgia’s speedy trial provision attempts to give force to that privilege, but Mr. Trump has argued that accelerating his timeline would injure his right to prepare a robust defense.
Judge McAfee telegraphed that “additional divisions” could soon be required — they could even become a “procedural and logistical inevitability.” One reason, it appears, is prosaic rather than profound: There is “simply no courtroom adequately large enough to hold all 19 defendants.”