Trump Requests Rare Oral Arguments in Fani Willis Removal Effort

Former President Donald Trump, the presumptive GOP nominee, requested an oral arguments hearing at the Georgia Court of Appeals before a three-judge panel decides whether Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis should be disqualified from his 2020 election subversion case in Georgia. 

“We believe oral argument will assist the court by highlighting and clarifying why the case should be dismissed and Fulton County DA Willis should be disqualified for her misconduct,” said lead defense counsel for Trump in Fulton County, Steve Sadow.

The request is significant, given that most appeals court cases are decided solely on attorneys’ written legal briefs, not oral arguments before the three-judge panel.

Last week, the Georgia Court of Appeals scheduled a tentative date to weigh the effort from Trump and seven other co-defendants for October to disqualify Willis from the case, which alleged Trump and his allies made a sweeping attempt to overturn Georgia’s 2020 election results.

The decision by the appeals court was a significant victory for the former President, as he had attempted to delay his three remaining criminal cases before the 2024 election. It has become increasingly unlikely for Willis’s case to move to a trial before the November 5, 2024, presidential election rematch between President Joe Biden and Trump.

According to court statistics, the state’s appeals court typically grants requests for oral arguments only 32% to 41% of the time.

Trump is among nine of 15 remaining defendants who are appealing a March 15 order by Judge Scott McAfee of the Fulton County Superior Court keeping Willis on the case. The judge found that while Willis’s romantic relationship with Nathan Wade, the former special prosecutor on the case, didn’t create a disqualifying conflict of interest, the relationship gave an appearance of conflict that required either Willis or Wade to resign.

The appeal from Trump concerns Willis’s alleged “forensic misconduct” that his lawyers believe should disqualify her from the case, according to the Sadow filing, attorney Jennifer Little, and Matthew Winchester, a newly added member of Trump’s legal team. McAfee relied previously on the standard from the 1988 case Williams v. State but suggested a lack of guidance on its application, particularly whether it must be shown or how it should be gauged.

Trump’s legal team points to Willis’s outside comments as prejudicial

Trump’s legal team has pointed to Willis’s outside comments, which include a speech she made on Martin Luther King Jr. Day weekend at a historically Black church. During the speech, Willis spoke about her relationship with God and race, which the defense argues could prejudice the jury and violate rules of professional conduct.

“In this speech, DA Willis injected race and her communications with God into the case (and the prospective jury pool) and stoked racial animus against the defendants and their counsel by, among other statements, asking God why the counterparts and why the judgment of a black female Democrat was not as good as white male Republicans,” wrote Sadow.

The case of removing Willis has primarily been litigated in public, as tens of thousands of viewers tuned in to watch hearings broadcast live. During the hearings in February and early March, Wade and Willis violently denied they improperly gained from their relationship and role in the high-profile case against Trump.

Trump’s defense team also argues the removal of Wade from the case “did nothing to cure nor mitigate the harm to the defendants from DA Willis’s extrajudicial speech,” noting “this error” could cause the upending of multiple jury trials if the appeals court doesn’t reconsider McAfee’s prior decision.

The hearing for removal at the appeals court was originally set for October 4, but deputy court administrator Christina Cooley Smith said Tuesday that the date will be rescheduled if oral arguments are requested and the judges choose to grant them because of a prior conflict in timing.

The court is required to issue a ruling by March 2025, although it may happen sooner.

In the meantime, Willis could attempt to ask the court to expedite the hearing over her removal. Additionally, she could seek to bring the case against the other six remaining defendants who did not join the appeal to remove her, although it’s unclear whether she will attempt to try that group first.