Raising higher the legal risk facing ex-White House Chief of Staff Mark R. Meadows, a federal judge on Friday probably weakened the chances that Meadows will be able to fight off state criminal charges in Georgia.
In a 49-page ruling, U.S. District Judge Steve C. Jones of Atlanta blocked Meadows’ attempt to shift his case from state to federal court, clearing the way for a trial in a Fulton County court. The judge made no decision on whether the former top aide to ex-President Donalds Trump was guilty or innocent; in fact, the ruling was based upon a basic finding that Meadows’ case was not properly in federal court.
This case is one of a series of criminal cases in various federal and state jurisdictions growing out of the violent attack on the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, involving efforts by Trump and his aides, lawyers and allies to overturn his loss to President Biden in the 2020 elections. In the Georgia case, Meadows is charged along with Trump and 18 other individuals.
Meadows promptly appealed the new ruling against him to a federal appeals court, but that will not stop the trial unless that higher court orders a delay. The dispute may ultimately go to the Supreme Court.
Judge Jones’ decision focused on three legal questions, and the answer that the judge gave to at least one of those would very likely extend to what Donald Trump and official aides other than Meadows are accused of doing in the Georgia case, and could even extend to private lawyers or other private individuals who have claimed their actions were directed or demanded by the former President.
Here, in summary, are Judge Jones’ answers:
First: Meadows in his role as Chief of Staff was acting as an officer of the federal government at the time of the actions leading to the state charges, and thus could attempt to shift the case to a federal court. (A federal law dating back to 1815 permits such transfers by federal officers, but only if the challenged actions were done in the line of official duty.)
Second: In the most significant of Judge Jones’ answers, he concluded that Meadows alleged role in a criminal “racketeering conspiracy” under Georgia law, with the aim of overturning the 2020 election outcome, involved political actions that were not part of his official duties in the White House. The judge wrote: “Engaging in political activity exceeds the outer limits of the office of the White House Chief of Staff.” (While Meadows clearly took some actions while the plot was unfolding that were official acts, the eight specific actions that he allegedly took to help with the conspiracy were not, according to the ruling.)
“The Constitution,” Judge Jones found, “does not provide any basis for Executive Branch involvement with state election and post-election procedures.” The opinion went on to say that Executive officials cannot monitor state elections in order to be able to make proposals to Congress about federal voting laws. Beyond the Constitution, the judge said, there is no federal law that gave Meadows power to act on state elections.
What the charges against Meadows focus upon, the opinion declared, were actions “taken on behalf of the Trump campaign with an ultimate goal of affecting state election activities and procedures.”
The opinion went over each of the eight actions Meadows allegedly did and found that only one – getting the telephone numbers of leaders of the Pennsylvania legislature because Trump wanted to call them – was ambiguous so it might have been related to his official job. The other evidence of political involvement, the judge said, was “overwhelming.”
Third: After spending the longest part of his opinion answering that second question, the judge chose not to give an answer to the third issue in Meadows’ case: did he have a valid legal defense to the charges?
Under the law at issue, a federal official must satisfy all of the requirements for transferring a state criminal case to federal court. One of those is the ability to claim a plausible – though not necessarily decisive – legal defense to the charges.
Judge Jones’ response to this was the most cautious part of his ruling, but it is the one part that is not easy to grasp. Meadows’ main legal defense was that, because all of his actions were in the line of duty, he was immune to state charges based on those actions. He was relying on the Constitution’s “Supremacy Clause” in Article VI, which makes the Constitution and federal laws the “supreme law of the land,” overpowering contradictory state laws.
Here is how Judge Jones got to the conclusion that he did not have to rule on the immunity question, or on any other legal defense that Meadows has raised or might raise:
The case against Meadows is a state case, the judge said, and the nation’s traditional respect for “the principle of federalism” means that “federal courts must not interfere in state judicial processes because state courts of general jurisdiction are authorized and competent, as front line fora, to adjudicate all relevant questions of both state and federal law” – a quotation drawn from a 1971 Supreme Court decision.
The judge said that state courts in Georgia might ultimately have to decide on the validity of Meadow’s legal defenses, so “evaluating them here should be avoided unless absolutely necessary.”
The concept of “federalism,” the judge said, also supported his conclusion that Meadows was not acting in the line of duty when he undertook political campaign activities. Federal courts are given a role, in taking over state cases against federal officers, in order to protect the functioning of the federal government, the judge noted. To allow Meadows to take his case to federal court when the charges do not relate to official acts, the opinion added, would amount to federal court interference in a state’s operation of its elections.
If Meadows’ challenge ultimately fails, in higher federal courts including the Supreme Court, he would go to trial in Fulton County criminal court before a jury. He no doubt would raise, anew, his federal immunity defense, and in doing so he would again have to convince a jury that his political actions involving the 2020 election were part of his federal duty. Judge Jones’ ruling almost certainly would help prosecutors dispute the defense.