Appellate judges press Mark Meadows' attorneys on request to move his Georgia election interference case

The ex-Trump chief of staff is again seeking to move his case to federal court.

December 15, 2023, 11:04 AM

A panel of three federal judges appointed by presidents George Bush, Barack Obama, and Joe Biden peppered attorneys for former Trump Chief of Staff Mark Meadows and the Fulton County district attorney's office with questions Friday during a hearing on Meadows' ongoing effort to move the election interference charges against him in Georgia out of state court and into federal court.

Meadows was charged in Fulton County this summer, alongside former President Donald Trump and 17 others, with conspiring to overturn Georgia's 2020 election results. He pleaded not guilty and has since unsuccessfully sought to remove the case to federal court based on a law that calls for the removal of criminal proceedings when someone is charged for actions they allegedly took as a federal official acting "under color" of their office.

Meadows was not present in court as his attorney urged the judges on 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to reverse a lower court's ruling and remove his case to federal court.

Meadows is charged for "acts taken in the West Wing of the White House by the highest appointed White House official," argued Meadows' attorney, George Terwilliger.

The judges appeared at times skeptical of Meadows' attorneys' arguments, pressing them on the limits of federal authority.

Judge Robin Rosenbaum, an Obama appointee, pressed Terwilliger about what the boundaries of Meadows' job were.

"According to [Meadows], it seems like everything was within his official duties, and that just cannot be right," said Rosenbaum in reference to Meadows' testimony in an earlier evidentiary hearing on the matter. She referred to it his conduct as "electioneering on behalf of a specific political candidate."

PHOTO: In this Oct. 21, 2020, file photo, Mark Meadows, White House chief of staff, speaks to members of the media outside of the White House in Washington, D.C.
In this Oct. 21, 2020, file photo, Mark Meadows, White House chief of staff, speaks to members of the media outside of the White House in Washington, D.C.
Polaris via Bloomberg via Getty Images, FILE

Later, Terwilliger suggested during his arguments that the removal issue amounted to "interference" -- which drew a quick and firm disagreement from the chief judge.

"I don't see how this is any way interfering with the Biden administration," Chief Judge William Pryor Jr., a Bush appointee, said, interrupting Terwilliger.

"It's not interfering with the Biden administration, but it is interfering with the administration of federal law in federal courts, and that's what the statute is designed to accomplish," Terwilliger responded.

After Terwilliger's arguments, Donald Wakeford of the Fulton County DA's office urged the court to "affirm" the lower court's decision to leave the case in state court, insetting that the law should not apply to former federal officials.

"Mr. Meadows was unable on the stand to provide a cogent explanation of what the scope of his office was," Wakeford said. "Mr. Meadows consistently, in briefing and when he testified, provided no limits whatsoever."

The judges pressed Wakeford as well -- specifically on the a potential "chilling effect" that keeping the case in state court could have on on future federal civil servants.

Judge Pryor pressed Wakeford on how to "address the concern of a chilling effect" that could occur if federal officials in an administration "that might be unpopular in certain jurisdictions" could be immediately prosecuted after leaving office, with no way to present federal defenses in federal court.

"That puts us really in an untenable situation," Judge Pryor said, with Rosenbaum asking, "Doesn't that create a chilling effect in some way on people who might consider running for office, for people who are in office, and maybe they think twice about what they're going to do because they are concerned about being indicted later and not being able to have a trial in a federal forum?"

Wakeford conceded it was a "concern," but pushed back.

"I still don't know that we can stand here in the court today and say that there are people out there who will refuse to pursue civic duties because of the interpretation [the statute] here," he said.

The judges did not issue an immediate ruling at the end of the 40-minute hearing.

The appeal from Meadows came after a federal judge in September denied his request to move his case to federal court, finding that Meadows' actions as charged in the indictment "were taken on behalf of the Trump campaign" -- not on behalf of his duties with the federal government.

"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," U.S. District Judge Steve Jones wrote in his order denying Meadows' request.

During an August evidentiary hearing on the matter, Meadows personally took the stand for hours, recounting in detail his months working as the right-hand man to then-President Trump.

"I don't know that I did anything that was outside of my role as chief of staff," Meadows testified.

Jones wrote in his order that the court gave "less weight" to Meadows' testimony on the stand, and highlighted the fact that 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."

"The Court finds that Meadows did not adequately convey the outer limits of his authority, and thus, the Court gives that testimony less weight," the order said.

Four other defendants charged as part of the case also moved for federal removal. All of them were denied by Jones.

Trump had initially signaled his own intention in state court to remove the case, but he later abandoned that effort, with his attorneys writing in a subsequent court filing that they would fight the case in state court -- a decision the filing said was based on Trump's "well-founded confidence that this Honorable Court intends to fully and completely protect his constitutional right to a fair trial and guarantee him due process of law throughout the prosecution of his case."