Judge Denies Meadows’s Request to Move Georgia Case to Federal Court

Georgia prosecutors leading the criminal election interference case against former President Donald J. Trump and 18 of his allies notched a victory on Friday when a judge rejected an effort by Mark Meadows, Mr. Trump’s former White House chief of staff, to move his case from state court to federal court.

Mr. Meadows would have faced the same state felony charges had his case been heard by a federal judge and jury, including a racketeering charge for his role in what prosecutors have described as a “criminal organization” that sought to overturn Mr. Trump’s 2020 election loss in the state. But removal to federal court would have given him key advantages, including a jury pool that was more favorable to Mr. Trump.

Conducting a trial in federal court would have also increased the likelihood that the United States Supreme Court, a third of whose members were nominated by Mr. Trump, would ultimately get involved in the case.

The setback for Mr. Meadows came in the first of many rulings that are expected for the defendants who are seeking to have their cases moved out of state court. Mr. Trump has not filed for a removal to federal court, but he is widely expected to do so.

However, the ruling, by Judge Steve C. Jones of the Northern District of Georgia, does not bode well for any of those efforts. An early trial is already scheduled to start in state court on Oct. 23 for two defendants, Kenneth Chesebro and Sidney Powell, who have invoked their right for a speedy trial under Georgia law.

The question of where the trials will take place is significant in another way as well. Unlike in federal court, the proceedings in state court will be televised, setting the stage for long-running public trials focused on efforts by Mr. Trump and his allies to cling to power.

“There is no federal jurisdiction over the criminal case,” Judge Jones, who was nominated by President Barack Obama, wrote in his ruling. “The outcome of this case will be for a Fulton County judge and trier of fact to ultimately decide.”

A lawyer for Mr. Meadows did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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Judge Steve C. Jones of the Northern District of Georgia rejected an effort by Mark Meadows, Mr. Trump’s former White House chief of staff, to move his racketeering case from state court to federal court.

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The ruling, which Mr. Meadows appealed on Friday night, came after his lawyers took the unexpected step of putting their client on the witness stand to make the case for removal in a hearing on Aug. 28 in Judge Jones’s courtroom in downtown Atlanta.

“Meadows had the strongest of the removal cases,” said Norman Eisen, who was special counsel to the House Judiciary Committee during Mr. Trump’s first impeachment. “If Meadows has failed, then there’s little hope for Clark, or for that matter Trump,” he added, referring to Jeffrey Clark, a defendant and former Justice Department official who has also filed to move his case to federal court.

In a filing this week, Mr. Trump’s lawyer, Steven H. Sadow, notified the presiding Fulton County Superior Court judge, Scott McAfee, that Mr. Trump might seek to move his case; he has until the end of the month to decide.

A key issue for Judge Jones was whether Mr. Meadows’s actions, as described in the 98-page indictment, could be considered within the scope of his job duties as White House chief of staff, which would qualify his case for removal under federal law. Removal is a longstanding legal tradition meant to protect federal officials from state-level prosecution that could impede them from conducting federal business; it is rooted in the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution, which makes federal law “supreme” over contrary state laws.

In the hearing on Mr. Meadows’s request, Fulton County prosecutors argued that he had overstepped the bounds of his chief-of-staff duties by acting as a de facto agent of Mr. Trump’s re-election campaign. They noted that he had arranged and participated in the now-famous Jan. 2, 2021, call between Mr. Trump and Brad Raffensperger, the Georgia secretary of state, in which Mr. Trump said he wanted to “find” roughly 12,000 votes, enough to reverse his election loss in the state.

The prosecutors said that with such actions, Mr. Meadows had violated the Hatch Act, which prohibits federal employees from engaging in political activities while they are on the job. Among the examples they noted was a text message that Mr. Meadows sent on Dec. 27, 2020, to an official in Mr. Raffensperger’s office, in which he offered financial assistance from the “Trump campaign” for a ballot verification effort.

Mr. Meadows’s lawyers emphasized that a chief of staff’s job often occupies a messy place where policy and politics converge — and that was among the reasons that some observers thought he had the best shot at removal to federal court.

But Judge Jones decided that the actions ascribed to Mr. Meadows in the indictment were not within the scope of his federal duties.

The evidence, he ruled, “establishes that the actions at the heart of the state’s charges against Meadows were taken on behalf of the Trump campaign with an ultimate goal of affecting state election activities and procedures.”

Mr. Meadows testified at the hearing before Judge Jones that he believed there were outstanding allegations of election fraud that Mr. Trump was concerned about that needed further investigation in the weeks after the election even after William P. Barr, the attorney general at the time, met with Mr. Meadows and told him that many of the allegations were “bullshit.”

In a likely preview to his defense strategy, Mr. Meadows also said he wanted to help Mr. Trump look into election fraud allegations as a way to “hopefully get this off of the president’s concern list.” That way, he could “land the plane,” he said, referring to facilitating a smooth and peaceful transfer of power to an incoming President Biden.

Mr. Trump’s lawyers unsuccessfully sought removal in his state criminal case in New York, in which he is charged with 34 felony counts of falsifying business records stemming from a hush money payment made to a porn star in 2016. Mr. Trump is also facing two federal criminal cases in Florida and Washington, D.C.

Besides Mr. Meadows and Mr. Clark, three other co-defendants in the Georgia case have asked for their cases to be moved to federal court. The others were Republican Party electors who submitted Electoral College votes for Mr. Trump despite his loss in Georgia: State Senator Shawn Still; Cathy Latham, a party activist from rural Georgia; and David Shafer, the former head of the Georgia Republican Party. Their claim is seen as particularly tenuous, because they did not work for the federal government.

For cases that remain in the state court system, the jury will be drawn from Fulton County, which covers most of Atlanta; Mr. Trump received just over 26 percent of the vote there in 2020. Cases removed to federal court would get a jury from a 10-county area where Mr. Trump received nearly 35 percent of the vote — a not-insignificant advantage for defendants, given the fact that it takes only one not-guilty vote to hang a jury.

In addition to racketeering, Mr. Meadows is charged with one count of solicitation of violation of oath by a public officer for his participation in the phone call with Mr. Raffensperger, the secretary of state. Prosecutors accuse Mr. Meadows of having “unlawfully solicited, requested and importuned” Mr. Raffensperger to engage in the illegal act of changing the certified vote returns in the state.

Prosecutors subpoenaed Mr. Raffensperger to testify at Mr. Meadows’s removal hearing. Mr. Raffensperger recounted how he was not swayed by Mr. Trump’s arguments that there were problems with the election results, which at that point had been subject to multiple recounts.

When asked to characterize the conversation with Mr. Trump and Mr. Meadows, Mr. Raffensperger said, “I thought it was a campaign call.”

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