Judges Press Lawyer for Meadows on Bid to Move Georgia Case to Federal Court

A lawyer for Mark Meadows, the White House chief of staff under former President Donald J. Trump, faced tough questions from a panel of judges on Friday as Mr. Meadows renewed his bid to move a Georgia election interference case from state court to federal court.

The panel of three appeals court judges heard brief oral arguments from a Georgia prosecutor and a lawyer for Mr. Meadows over the jurisdiction of the case, in which Mr. Meadows is accused of working with a group of people to overturn Mr. Trump’s 2020 election loss in the state.

The judges asked sharp questions of both sides but seemed particularly skeptical of the arguments advanced by Mr. Meadows, who claims that the allegations against him concern actions he took as a federal officer and thus should be dealt with in federal court.

Moving the case to federal court would give Mr. Meadows advantages, including a jury pool drawn from a wider geographic area with moderately more support for Mr. Trump. But in September, a federal judge sided with the prosecutors, writing that Mr. Meadows’s conduct, as outlined in the indictment, was “not related to his role as White House chief of staff or his executive branch authority.”

Mr. Meadows appealed that decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, where the three-judge panel — consisting of two Democrat-appointed judges and one Republican-appointed judge — peppered lawyers with questions on Friday in an ornate courtroom in downtown Atlanta.

In her questioning of Mr. Meadows’s lawyer, Judge Nancy Abudu, an appointee of President Biden, said that Mr. Meadows’s own testimony, in August, had seemed to broadly define what actions were part of his official duties as chief of staff.

“The testimony that was provided essentially didn’t provide any outer limits to what his duties were,” Judge Abudu said. “So it’s almost as if he could do anything, in that capacity, as long as he could say it was on behalf of the president.”

But Mr. Meadows’s lawyer, George J. Terwilliger III, countered that Mr. Meadows did not need to establish those limits, but rather only had to “establish a nexus” to the duties of his federal job. Mr. Terwilliger’s argument focused on the idea that keeping the case in state court would be inappropriate because it would require a state judge to decide important matters relating to federal law, such as what the role of White House chief of staff entails.

“That makes no sense,” Mr. Terwilliger said. “Those are federal questions that need to be resolved in federal court.”

In addition to Judge Abudu, the panel included Chief Circuit Judge William Pryor, an appointee of President George W. Bush, and Judge Robin Rosenbaum, an appointee of President Barack Obama. The case concerns the concept of “removal,” which means essentially transferring a case from state to federal court; if the case was removed, Mr. Meadows would continue to face the same charges.

The case against Mr. Meadows stems from a lengthy investigation by Fani T. Willis, the Fulton County district attorney, that led to her charging 19 people — including Mr. Trump — with racketeering and other charges related to their attempts to keep Mr. Trump in power. Four of those defendants have reached plea agreements with Ms. Willis’s office, and another four besides Mr. Meadows are seeking to have their cases moved to federal courts, including Jeffrey Clark, a former high-ranking Justice Department official. Mr. Meadows, Mr. Trump and Mr. Clark have pleaded not guilty.

To move his case to federal court, Mr. Meadows’s lawyers must show that his actions — as alleged in the indictment — were within the scope of his job duties as chief of staff, and that Mr. Meadows still counts as a federal officer even though he no longer holds that position.

Lawyers with Ms. Willis’s office have argued that Mr. Meadows was taking political actions in service of Mr. Trump’s re-election campaign, rather than operating in his role as chief of staff. Donald Wakeford, a top prosecutor in Ms. Willis’s office, also argued on Friday that Mr. Meadows no longer has the ability to move his case to federal court because he is no longer a federal officer.

The judges posed several hypotheticals to Mr. Wakeford about whether that interpretation might allow states to charge unpopular federal officials shortly after they left office. Mr. Wakeford argued that regardless of such concerns, the relevant federal law does not indicate that former federal officials can move their cases out of state court.

Among the criminal acts alleged in the indictment of Mr. Meadows is a phone call on Jan. 2, 2021, between Mr. Trump and Brad Raffensperger, the Georgia secretary of state, in which Mr. Trump said he wanted to “find” nearly 12,000 more Trump votes, enough to reverse his defeat. Mr. Meadows testified in August that Mr. Trump had directed him to set up that phone call.

In December 2020, Mr. Meadows also made a surprise visit to Cobb County, Ga., accompanied by Secret Service agents, intending to view an audit that was in progress there. Local officials declined to let him do so because it was not open to the public.

No matter what the appeals court decides, lawyers for either side could ask the Supreme Court to take up the case, potentially enmeshing the nation’s top court in a contentious political case during an election year.

The challenge Mr. Meadows faces was summed up by Judge Rosenbaum. “According to him, it seems like everything was within his official duties,” she said during the proceeding. “And that just cannot be right.”

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