A federal judge denied a request Friday from former White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows to move the Georgia election-interference case against him from state to federal court, a shift he had sought on the grounds that he was a federal officer at the time of the actions that led to his indictment.
The ruling by U.S. District Judge Steve C. Jones in the Atlanta-based Northern District of Georgia represents a setback for Meadows, who had asked for removal under a federal law that allows people charged with crimes while carrying out their official duties to be prosecuted in federal court, even in cases involving state law and state prosecutors.
Meadows had hoped a move to federal court could lead to a quick dismissal of the case against him because he had argued to Jones that as a federal officer, he is immune from prosecution for acts taken in the course of his normal work.
Instead, Jones found that the actions “at the heart of the State’s charges against Meadows were taken on behalf of the Trump campaign with the ultimate goal of affecting state election activities and procedures.” He added: “Meadows himself testified that working for the Trump campaign would be outside the scope of a White House Chief of Staff.”
The sweeping indictment filed last month in Fulton County, Ga., alleges former president Donald Trump and 18 co-defendants, including Meadows, operated a vast criminal enterprise for the purpose of illegally reversing Trump’s defeat against Joe Biden in the 2020 presidential election in Georgia.
The Meadows decision was the first major ruling in the Georgia case, which will feature a regular rotation of appearances by the defendants in state and federal courtrooms to litigate pretrial issues in the coming weeks — a reminder of the case’s complexity and the potential for delays before it can be heard, ultimately, by a jury.
Jones’s decision is also not good news for four other co-defendants who have sought to move their cases to federal court. Jones said during Meadows’s Aug. 28 hearing that he expected his ruling to serve as precedent for other cases. While Trump has not sought removal, his lawyers indicated in a Superior Court filing on Thursday that he “may do so.” The decision would appear to bode poorly for him, too, if he chooses to seek removal.
In the ruling, Jones made a reference to Trump’s now-famous Jan. 2, 2021, phone call to Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger (R), seeking to “find” enough voters to reverse Trump’s defeat in the state. He said the call “was made regarding private litigation” brought by Trump and his campaign, and therefore outside of Meadows’s — and presumably Trump’s — federal role.
Jones’s ruling represents a victory for Fulton County District Attorney Fani T. Willis, who will retain her home-field advantage by keeping the case in Fulton County Superior Court, where she knows the judges and where the trial will be governed by familiar state, not federal, procedures.
Had Meadows prevailed, Jones’s next step would have been to consider his request to dismiss the case outright under a legal principle similar to the one he used to argue for removal — that he is immune from prosecution because he was acting as a federal officer.
Now, Meadows’s case will proceed in Fulton County Superior Court with no opportunity to make that argument — though he has the option to appeal the decision to the 11th Circuit, a notably conservative court that could view the issue differently from Jones, whom Barack Obama appointed to the bench. Ultimately, Meadows could ask the U.S. Supreme Court to review the issue.
At the heart of the federal removal question is whether Meadows’s actions that led to criminal charges were taken within the scope of his duties as a federal officer. Jones ruled that while some of Meadows’s actions that were described in the indictment met that standard — such as managing the president’s schedule and attending meetings — others did not, including the broader charge that he participated in a racketeering conspiracy to overturn the election.
“As a senior official in the executive branch, Meadows cannot have acted in his role as a federal officer with respect to any efforts to influence, interfere with, disrupt, oversee, or change state elections,” Jones wrote. “Those activities are expressly delegated to the States.”
Jones also appeared troubled by portions of Meadows’s testimony, during which he “was unable to explain the limits of his authority.” The federal Hatch Act, Jones wrote, prohibits an employee from using his official authority or influence to affect the outcome of an election. While Meadows has not been charged with a Hatch Act violation, Jones wrote that working with or for the Trump campaign — beyond scheduling and travel — “exceeds the outer limits of the Office of the White House chief of staff.”
“Even if Meadows took on tasks that mirror the duties that he carried out when acting in his official role as White House Chief of Staff (such as attending meetings, scheduling phone calls, and managing the President’s time), he has failed to demonstrate how the election-related activities that serve as the basis for the charges in the Indictment are related to any of his official acts,” Jones wrote.
The Georgia case is the fourth criminal indictment against Trump this year. Special counsel Jack Smith has brought two federal cases against him, one in Washington alleging election interference, and the other in Miami alleging he mishandled classified documents after he left the White House. Trump is also charged in New York with falsifying business records in connection to hush money paid to adult film actress Stormy Daniels before the 2016 presidential election. A federal judge previously rejected Trump’s attempt to move that case from state to federal court.
Trump argued he reimbursed lawyer Michael Cohen for making the payments to Daniels after he took office to protect his presidency and thus was acting as a federal official. U.S. District Judge Alvin K. Hellerstein found that the charges pertained to Trump’s personal life and did not involve his official duties as president.
The four defendants in the Georgia case who have also sought to move their cases to federal court are former Justice Department official Jeffrey Clark, former Georgia Republican Party chairman David Shafer, Georgia state Sen. Shawn Still (R) and Cathy Latham, the former GOP chair for Coffee County and a member of the Georgia Republican Party’s executive committee. Shafer, Still and Latham served as pro-Trump electors in 2020, and Latham was also charged for her alleged role in allowing outsiders to copy the hard drives of sensitive election equipment in Georgia’s Coffee County.
The 98-page indictment sought by Willis describes a series of acts Meadows took in the weeks after Trump lost the presidential election, including meeting with state lawmakers in Michigan and Pennsylvania and visiting a Georgia site where signatures on absentee ballots were being verified. It alleges those efforts were part of what Willis has charged was an illegal racketeering conspiracy to overturn the results.
The indictment alleges that Meadows also illegally solicited a public official to violate his oath by joining Trump on the Raffensperger call.
At an Aug. 28 hearing, Jones appeared skeptical of Meadows’s claim that he was simply “trying to land the plane” — participating in meetings and phone calls at which Trump and others discussed how to reverse his Georgia defeat primarily to keep Trump on schedule.
At the same hearing, prosecutors noted that in an email to Trump campaign aide Jason Miller, Meadows said, “We just need to have someone coordinating the electors for states.” They also showed how Meadows referred to “we” during the Raffensperger call. Meadows testified that he was using the word “we” too loosely and he meant the campaign, not including himself.
At one point, Jones pressed Meadows’s lead attorney, George J. Terwilliger III, about whether he believed there to be any “limitation” to what his client was allowed to do in his job as Trump’s chief of staff. Terwilliger essentially said no, describing Meadows as an “alter ego” of Trump who was consistently acting as a “federal authority” of the executive branch.
That claim quickly drew a rebuke from Donald Wakeford, an assistant Fulton County district attorney, who said the Hatch Act makes clear there is a limitation — by expressly prohibiting government officials from using their roles to influence an election. Wakeford said Meadows saw “no distinction” between his White House work and the Trump campaign.
One factor that federal removal does not change is the eligibility of defendants for a federal pardon. Because the case would be tried under Georgia statutes, not federal ones, Georgia would retain jurisdiction of the possibility of a pardon, several legal experts said. And in Georgia, that power rests with an appointed board, not the governor. So even if Trump is reelected in 2024, he would not have the power to pardon the Georgia defendants.