The judge and the prosecutor in the Georgia Trump case are running for reelection too

ATLANTA — Fulton Superior Court Judge Scott McAfee has been all over the news this year — always at the bench and robed in black as he presides over the Georgia election interference case involving former President Donald Trump.

But on a recent Saturday, McAfee was in a T-shirt and jeans waving around a plastic gasoline can to fill up a red 1965 Cadillac Fleetwood that has been in his family for years.

A “Keep Judge McAfee” sign is tied to the roof.

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“I’ll be honest, this is my first parade,” McAfee says, as he prepares to march with his family in the annual Inman Park Parade. “I’m a little nervous. We’ll see if anyone brought their tomatoes today.”

Trump is not the only key player in the Georgia election interference case facing voters this year. The top prosecutor, Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis, is on the ballot. And so is the judge.

“It’s this unprecedented and bizarre confluence of the prosecutor, the judge and one of the defendants all on the ballot,” says veteran Fulton Superior Judge Robert McBurney, who supervised the special grand jury requested by Willis to investigate Trump and his future co-defendants. “It highlights the tension between wanting to have apolitical judges and yet putting them on ballots.”

Elsewhere in Fulton County, Republican state Sen. Shawn Still, a Trump co-defendant who signed onto a false slate of electors for Trump and has also pleaded not guilty, is up for reelection this year as well.

“Staying accessible”

Republican Gov. Brian Kemp appointed McAfee, then 33, to fill a vacant seat in 2022. Seven months later, the court randomly assigned him the Trump case. Now, McAfee is running for a full term, facing an opponent this month in a nonpartisan race. But he says campaigning has not been such a bad thing.

“I’ve still got 400 other cases that no one’s really paying as much attention to,” McAfee says. “And those folks come in, they put their lives on the line and ask me to understand where they’re coming from. And I don’t think I can do that without staying accessible.”

McAfee’s opponent, Robert Patillo, is an attorney and radio host who highlights his background as a civil rights and defense attorney. In other words, he has not been a prosecutor, like McAfee.

“When you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail,” Patillo says. “The system is broken, fundamentally.”

Patillo points to the case backlog in Fulton County, where defendants awaiting trial can languish in the jail for months or longer. McAfee says he is proud of the progress he has made chipping away at the docket he inherited.

Patillo has also noted McAfee’s involvement in the Federalist Society during law school, saying the conservative legal organization does not match the values of heavily Democratic Fulton County. McAfee says he is no longer involved with the group.

“In terms of my judicial philosophy, I think that’s been on display and folks can take account of it as they will,” he says. “When someone’s going to appear in front of me, it’s not about a party platform or a set of ironclad ideals.”

Patillo has also criticized McAfee’s handling of the Trump case, albeit gently.

In Georgia v. Trump, McAfee’s first big decision — on defendants’ claims that Willis’ romantic relationship with a special prosecutor tainted the case with a conflict of interest — drew praise and pushback, for going too far or not far enough.

After days of sometimes-unwieldy hearings, McAfee ultimately allowed Willis to remain on the case if the special prosecutor resigned. But in the ruling, he also rebuked Willis’ conduct. “An odor of mendacity remains,” he wrote.

The Georgia Court of Appeals agreed Wednesday to hear oral arguments from Trump and other defendants appealing McAfee’s decision. That ruling diminishes chances of a trial date being set before the presidential election.

“We can zoom in on one particular decision, and people can say, ‘I don’t think he got that one right.’ But if you look back and maybe look at the whole year’s work, it’s undeniable I’m just trying to do the right thing and follow the law,” McAfee says.

As McAfee shuttles between campaign stops like the local Republican club in tony Buckhead or the predominantly Black congregation at a Baptist church, voters of all stripes want to tell McAfee what they think about the case. McAfee is limited in what he can say.

“You look a little young to be a judge,” Atlanta resident Dione Martin teases, as McAfee pauses to chat along the parade route. “Age is just a number,” he tells her, along with a reminder of where to find nonpartisan races on the ballot. “It’s way down at the bottom,” he says.

Martin is a little taken aback when she learns who she just poked fun at. She has been keeping up with the Trump case, including the recent claims against Willis and McAfee’s ruling.

“I felt like she knew how buttoned up she had to be,” Martin says, of the DA. “Dot all your i’s, cross all your t’s. And then for this to come out, how could you let that happen? I still think it didn’t have much to do with the actual merits of the case, so I’m glad she was able to stay on, but it was really a bang-your-head-against-the-wall moment.”

“You will know where the truth lies”

Willis is also campaigning for election, also in the parade. A few blocks ahead, she pokes her head from the sunroof of a black SUV, an armed guard riding shotgun. Willis receives death threats regularly — especially since she asked a grand jury in August to indict Trump and 18 others for attempting to interfere with the 2020 election result in Georgia. Four have pleaded guilty so far.

A few people boo, but in progressive Inman Park, most cheer and applaud.

“We love you!” one reveler screams. “Keep it up!” Another shouts, “Lock him up!” referring to Trump.

Willis waves, but the security detail overrules her prodding to finish the route on foot.

Across town, K & K Soul Food is a quieter venue, where bleary-eyed movers, security guards and plumbers stream in and out for grits, eggs and catfish on the way to work.

A table by the front door is draped with the judicial circuit’s seal. The table is jammed with pamphlets for youth mentorship, a pretrial diversion program and domestic violence resources. Willis is on hand for an outreach event, but a gaggle of TV producers press for details on the Trump case.

“If you came here for that today, I’m sorry you’re here,” Willis says. The DA has recently been chided for saying too much about the case.

“I’m a sister, I can do all of it. I can prosecute high-profile cases and I can prosecute everyday cases,” Willis redirects. “But I can also start the first ever Fulton County pre-indictment diversion plan, where we are giving citizens a second chance.”

Willis, the first Black woman elected district attorney in Fulton County, took office just days after the infamous Trump call to Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger asking to “find” him votes.

I ask Willis what she would say to voters who may question her judgment in light of the conflict of interest allegations in the Trump case.

“If you look at the work that we’ve done and the positive impact it’s had on your community, you will know where the truth lies,” she says.

Willis’ opponent in the Democratic primary this month, Christian Wise Smith, has slipped in digs at his opponent’s handling of the Trump case, but it has not been the central focus of his campaign. Instead, he pitches himself as a more progressive prosecutor. He often highlights how his own experiences with the criminal justice system as a kid in Cincinnati would inform his approach to the job.

“I’ve actually lived the life of most people going through the system, so I can talk about it differently,” Wise Smith says.

Willis eschews labels to describe her approach to criminal justice.

“You have these people that think you should lock everyone up and that is foolish,” Willis says. “It does not work. But you also have these people who think we should not have any prisons or jail cells, and you have a district attorney who was a murder prosecutor for eight years.”

If Willis wins the primary, she will then face a Republican challenger in November.

“I’m happy to live in a democracy where we get to choose the people that represent us,” Willis says. “What I hope people do is research the background of the DA and see who she really is and make an informed decision.”

“That’s why I’m voting”

Two miles away sits the imposing Fulton County Courthouse. It’s where years ago Willis once supervised McAfee in the major case division and where two grand juries met leading up to Trump’s indictment.

McBurney, the veteran judge who supervised one of those grand juries, understands what it is like to helm a case so closely scrutinized.

“As a human, you’re sort of consumed by that big, shiny case that you got stuck on and it’s very natural to say, ‘I’d love to talk about it and let me tell you, it’s stressful, it’s fascinating,’ but you can’t,” he says.

Voter Martin says her remote coworkers outside Georgia regularly ask her about the Trump case. She can practically see the courthouse from her home.

She says it feels like this year, she has a front row seat to history — and she might help shape it.

She can vote for or against the judge, the prosecutor and the defendant in one of the most unusual and high-stakes criminal cases the country has ever seen.

“That’s why I’m voting,” Martin says. “I definitely think we have a voice in this.”