Fani Willis and the court of public opinion

Clarence Page, syndicated columnist

Fani Willis should have known better.

It doesn’t take a law degree to know that the appearance of impropriety can be just as damaging as the real thing. Sometimes worse.

That’s particularly true in a “heater case,” which is courthouse slang for a case that attracts an inordinate amount of media focus. Needless to say, it is hard to get much hotter than the courtroom drama in Georgia, where four-times-indicted former President Donald Trump and almost 20 co-defendants (some of whom struck plea deals) face charges of election interference.

And that parade of heaters spawned yet another: a drive by former Trump crony Michael Roman, among other interested parties, to have Willis, Fulton County, Georgia’s district attorney, disqualified from the sprawling RICO case she brought against Trump and the others.

At issue: Willis’ romantic relationship with Nathan Wade, an outside attorney she hired as a special prosecutor in the election interference case. Earlier this year, before Willis and Wade admitted to their relationship, defense attorneys pounced, accusing Willis of a conflict of interest. The defendants claimed Willis personally profited from hiring Wade because Wade spent some of the hundreds of thousands of dollars he earned from the assignment on trips with Willis to such locations as Belize, Aruba and Napa Valley.

On the witness stand, Willis spent a cringeworthy day defending her integrity and firing back at the attorneys she said were attempting to smear her name.

“You’ve been intrusive into people’s lives,” she said to defense attorney Ashleigh Merchant. “You think I’m on trial. I’m not on trial, no matter how hard you try to put me on trial.”

This case became so hot on a number of levels that it turned into a peculiar blend of courtroom drama and soap opera. On Jan. 14, days before even admitting to the relationship and before taking the witness stand, Willis stood before the congregation at Atlanta’s Big Bethel AME Church and described herself as “flawed” and “imperfect.”

Both Willis and Wade deny they’ve done anything improper. Indeed, their relationship has run its course, and yet he remains the special prosecutor.

Willis said she paid Wade back for her share of the cost of the trips. There were no receipts of such payments, which she explained was because she paid him in cash. She said her father had taught her from an early age to keep cash on hand as financial protection. Defense attorneys were incredulous, so up to the stand went Willis’ elderly father, who testified that, yes, indeed that was what he taught his daughter.

Got all that?

The allegations against Trump in Georgia are serious, and the sideshow regarding the district attorney’s personal life has done nothing but distract from the matter at hand. It’s unclear at this point whether Willis will retain control of the case.

Whatever else you might think of the case she has brought against Trump and his allies, Willis undermined the effort through her own poor judgment. In other words, she should have known better.

Yes, her legal argument may be sound enough to hold up in court. It’s not enough to be involved romantically with a co-counsel under Georgia law, according to some legal scholars. There needs to be some private gain to disqualify her as conflicted. Hence the testimony about cash payments.

But legal distinctions are not the whole story, not when one of the most divisive politicians in American history is the defendant. Willis could survive this bid to disqualify her and still badly damage her future career.

And in the end, what really matters is that justice is served. Will that happen here? It’s hard to predict how this heater concludes.


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