Judge rejects bid by Mark Meadows to move Georgia election interference case to federal court
Sep 8, 2023, 10:00 PM
(CNN) — A federal judge on Friday rejected former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows’ bid to move his Georgia criminal case to federal court, a significant setback for Meadows and a troubling sign for former President Donald Trump.
US District Judge Steve Jones found that the allegations against Meadows contained in the Fulton County district attorney’s indictment on election subversion charges were largely “related to political activities” and not to Meadows’ role as White House chief of staff.
“The evidence before the Court overwhelmingly suggests that Meadows was not acting in his scope of executive branch duties during most of the Overt Acts alleged,” wrote Jones, a Barack Obama appointee.
The Friday ruling has significant implications for the former president and his 18 co-defendants in the Fulton County district attorney’s sprawling racketeering case, though the judge said the ruling did not apply to the other defendants. Meadows was the first of five defendants who already filed motions to move the case to federal court – and Trump is expected to do so, too.
Meadows unsuccessfully argued that his case, now playing out in Georgia state court, should be moved because the allegations in the indictment were connected to his official duties as White House chief of staff. His lawyers wanted the case in federal court so they could try to get it dismissed altogether, invoking federal immunity extended to certain individuals who are prosecuted or sued for conduct tied to their US government roles.
The judge’s decision could set the tone for the other defendants also trying to move their cases. It’s an ominous sign for the defendants who are hoping to invoke the same federal immunity protections.
The judge explicitly stated in his ruling that he is not offering any opinion about Fulton County’s underlying criminal case against Meadows, who has pleaded not guilty.
Jones wrote in the decision that Meadows had not met even the “‘quite low’ threshold for removal” to federal court, because his activities for the Trump campaign were outside the scope of his federal role as White House chief of staff.
“The Court finds that the color of the Office of the White House Chief of Staff did not include working with or working for the Trump campaign, except for simply coordinating the President’s schedule, traveling with the President to his campaign events, and redirecting communications to the campaign,” Jones wrote. “Thus, consistent with his testimony and the federal statutes and regulations, engaging in political activities is exceeds the outer limits of the Office of the White House Chief of Staff.”
The Hatch Act, which prohibits federal officials from engaging in political activity as part of their official duties, was “helpful in defining the outer limits of the scope the White House Chief of Staff’s authority,” the judge said.
“These prohibitions on executive branch employees (including the White House Chief of Staff) reinforce the Court’s conclusion that Meadows has not shown how his actions relate to the scope of his federal executive branch office. Federal officer removal is thereby inapposite,” the judge wrote in the decision.
Meadows on Friday swiftly appealed the ruling to the US 11th Circuit Court of Appeals.
‘Outside Meadows’ federal role’
The indictment identifies eight overt acts Meadows allegedly took in furtherance of the scheme to overturn the 2020 election results. Meadows argued that these actions were part of his federal duties – and thus, the case should be moved to federal court – but Jones disagreed.
“The Court finds insufficient evidence to establish that the gravamen, or a heavy majority of overt acts alleged against Meadows relate to his role as White House Chief of Staff,” Jones wrote, adding that “Meadows failed to provide sufficient evidence that these actions related to any legitimate purpose of the executive branch.”
One of Meadows’ most critical actions was his participation in Trump’s phone call with Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger in early January 2021, when Trump infamously prodded Raffensperger to “find” enough votes for him to overcome Joe Biden’s margin of victory.
Jones ruled that this phone call “was made regarding private litigation brought by President and his campaign” and was “therefore outside Meadows’ federal role as an executive branch officer.”
Meadows other actions in late 2020, including contacts with state lawmakers that Trump hoped would help him undermine the election results, also weren’t tied to his government role, Jones concluded.
“The Court finds that the underlying substance of those meetings and calls were related to political activities and not to the scope of Meadows’s federal office,” the judge wrote.
Mark Meadows first to seek removal to federal court
The ruling is also a personal blow to Meadows, who took a significant risk by testifying about the removal bid at a recent hearing, where he was questioned under oath by Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis’ team. Prosecutors could potentially use his testimony against him in future proceedings.
After the charges against Trump and his 18 co-defendants were filed, the former president’s lawyers signaled they intended to try to move Trump’s case to federal court, just as Trump had unsuccessfully sought to do in his New York criminal case. Trump’s lawyers told the judge overseeing the state case on Thursday that he may seek to move the case to federal court, but they haven’t filed the legal motions yet.
Trump has 30 days from the time he entered his not-guilty plea to file to move his case.
CNN has reached out to lawyers for Meadows and Trump for comment.
In addition to Meadows, Jeffrey Clark, the former Trump administration DOJ official, and three Georgia GOP officials who served as Trump’s fake electors have also filed to move their cases to federal court. Former Georgia Republican Party Chairman David Shafer and former GOP Coffee County Chairwoman Cathy Latham have a joint hearing scheduled on September 20, while the third fake elector seeking federal removal – Shawn Still, a Georgia state senator – has a hearing on September 18.
While Meadows’ motion was rejected, Shafer, Still and Latham have made a slightly different argument: They say they acted as fake electors at Trump’s direction. But unlike Meadows, who worked in the White House in 2020, the fake electors have a more tenuous link to the federal government, as nominees to serve as real electors for Trump if he won Georgia, who would’ve participated in the federally mandated Electoral College process.
In his decision Friday, Jones noted that his ruling regarding Meadows “does not, at this time, have any effect on” the other defendants who are also trying to move their case to federal court. Those motions are still pending before Jones, and evidentiary hearings are scheduled for later this month.
“The Court will assess these Defendants’ arguments and evidence following the forthcoming hearings…. independent of its conclusion” in the Meadows case, Jones wrote.
There are several reasons why it would be advantageous for Meadows and the other defendants to move their cases to federal court. In addition to making immunity claims under the Constitution’s Supremacy Clause, a federal trial would likely have a jury pool more sympathetic to Trump and his co-defendants.
While the state courthouse for this case is based in deep-blue Fulton County, the federal court district that includes Fulton also contains the more-Republican northern part of the state.
At his hearing last month, Meadows surprisingly took the stand trying to help move his case to federal court, testifying for more than three hours about what happened in the White House after the 2020 election.
Meadows tried to argue that all of his work as the president’s top adviser fit into his role as chief of staff – even when it spilled into politics.
“It’s still part of my job to make sure that the president is safe and secure and able to perform his job. And that’s what I was doing,” Meadows said, later adding, “serving the president of the United States and … it takes on all kinds of forms.”
But the Fulton County prosecutors peppered Meadows with questions about how his official job involved things like setting up phone calls involving campaign lawyers, such as Trump’s infamous January 2021 phone call Raffensperger.
Jones concluded that some of Meadows’ high-stakes testimony on the witness stand was lacking – and even used some of it against him in the ruling.
“When questioned about the scope of his authority, Meadows was unable to explain the limits of his authority, other than his inability to stump for the President or work on behalf of the campaign,” Jones wrote, saying he would give Meadows’ testimony on that topic “less weight” than the other evidence.
Jones also cited Meadows’ acknowledgment that the lawyers he included in the phone call with Georgia’s secretary of state were working for Trump or his campaign – not the government.
Fulton County prosecutors also subpoenaed Raffensperger to testify at Meadows’ hearing, where Raffensperger said plainly there was no role for the federal government in certifying Georgia’s elections.
“It was a campaign call,” Raffensperger testified.