A Fulton judge on Monday rejected a sweeping push from former President Donald Trump to gut the Fulton County district attorney’s investigation of interference in Georgia’s 2020 presidential election, which is expected to result in criminal charges in the weeks ahead.
In a searing nine-page order, Superior Court Judge Robert McBurney ruled that Trump and Cathy Latham, an “alternate” GOP elector who joined the former president’s motion, did not have sufficient legal standing to mount a challenge before any indictments are announced.
“The movants’ asserted ‘injuries’ that would open the doors of the courthouse to their claims are either insufficient or else speculative and unrealized,” McBurney wrote. “They are insufficient because, while being the subject (or even target) of a highly publicized criminal investigation is likely an unwelcome and unpleasant experience, no court ever has held that that status alone provides a basis for the courts to interfere with or halt the investigation.”
The ruling came in response to a motion that Trump’s Atlanta-based attorneys filed in March, which questioned the conduct of Fulton DA Fani Willis, the investigative special grand jury that helped her compile evidence — and even McBurney himself.
There will be a time and a forum in which to raise such a challenge— after an indictment is handed up and a judge is assigned to hear the case, McBurney wrote, not speculating who will or will not be formally charged.
“Guessing at what that picture might look like before the investigative dots are connected may be a popular game for the media and blogosphere, but it is not a proper role for the courts and formal legal argumentation,” the judge wrote.
Willis has heavily suggested she will seek criminal charges against Trump and others within the next three weeks. As recently as this weekend, she warned a group of county leaders to “stay alert” and “make decisions that keep your staff safe.”
“The work is accomplished. We’ve been working for two-and-a-half years. We’re ready to go,” Willis told 11Alive News on Saturday.
Trump had also asked that another Fulton judge quash the final report of the special grand jury, which recommended indictments, that Willis be recused from pursuing the case and that McBurney be sidelined.
“The whole world has watched the process of the [special purpose grand jury] unfold and what they have witnessed was a process that was confusing, flawed and, at times, unconstitutional,” Trump’s team wrote in their original motion.
In his order, McBurney said he was not going to rule on the merits of that challenge, given his ruling that Trump and Latham lacked standing, but the judge said he found the arguments to be “unpersuasive.” He also said that Trump’s attorneys did not follow the court’s typical process for seeking the recusal of a judge assigned to the case.
McBurney flatly rejected the bid to disqualify Willis from the case, finding she had no conflict of interest and noting her recurring comments were that she was “pursuing the evidence where it leads us,” “holding everyone accountable” and “no one being above the law.”
Then, in a reference to the former president, McBurney added, “The drumbeat from the district attorney has been neither partisan (in the political sense) nor personal, in marked and refreshing contrast to the stream of personal invective flowing from one of the movants.”
Trump was joined by Latham, the former chairwoman of the Coffee County GOP who was on hand in January 2021 to greet data technicians hired by a Trump campaign attorney to copy confidential elections data from voting machines at the county elections office. Latham was named an investigation “target” last summer.
Drew Findling, Trump’s lead Atlanta attorney, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. A spokesperson for Willis declined to comment.
McBurney’s order comes just days after Senior Superior Court Judge Stephen Schuster scheduled a hearing for Aug. 10 on a secondary bid by Trump to disqualify Willis and quash the special grand jury’s final report. Trump’s lawyers said they filed this challenge — called a writ of mandamus and prohibition — because it had taken McBurney months to rule on the former president’s original motion. Schuster was assigned the case, filed in Fulton Superior Court, as a visiting judge because all of Fulton’s judges were recused from hearing the challenge.
“Perplexingly, prematurely, and with the standard pugnacity, Trump has filed not one but two mandamus actions against the district attorney and this court,” one the Georgia Supreme Court has already dismissed, McBurney noted.
It is not clear whether the Aug. 10 hearing will still take place.
McBurney said if Trump or Latham appeal his order that will “render moot” the mandamus case now pending before Schuster, and McBurney pointedly said all the other challenges could have been avoided because he had until Aug. 13 to issue the order.
“In the future, counsel is encouraged to follow the professional standard of inquiring with chamber’s staff about timing and deadlines before burdening other courts with unnecessary and unfounded legal filings,” he wrote.
Story by Tamar Hallerman and Bill Rankin, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.