For This Rookie Judge, a Pivotal Decision Looms in the Georgia Trump Case

For Judge Scott McAfee, it was probably an awkward moment.

At a hearing in Atlanta last month, he issued a warning to his former boss, Fani T. Willis, the Fulton County district attorney, during her combative turn on the witness stand. Ms. Willis, who was fighting allegations that threatened her grip on the election interference case against former President Donald J. Trump, had grown so irritated with a defense lawyer that she began expressing her frustration directly to the judge.

“I’m going to have to caution you,” the soft-spoken Judge McAfee, of Fulton County Superior Court, told her in response. “We have to listen to the questions as asked. And if this happens again and again, I’m going to have no choice but to strike your testimony.”

Ms. Willis’s filibustering whirlwind subsided as she waved a hand in exasperation.

Now Judge McAfee, who at 34 is too young to be president himself, is preparing to issue a high-stakes decision in the Georgia case against the former president and 14 of his allies: whether to disqualify Ms. Willis on the grounds that a romance she had with Nathan Wade, the lawyer she hired to run the case, created an untenable conflict of interest.

Legal experts generally agree that Ms. Willis used poor judgment in paying a romantic partner public funds while he was also at least partly paying for vacations they took together — the basis for the defense argument that she engaged in “self-dealing.”

Opinions differ, however, on whether her actions created a legitimate conflict of interest — and on whether even an appearance of a conflict is sufficient to disqualify the district attorney and her whole office.

Barely on the court for a year, the even-keeled Judge McAfee hews to textualism, a common judicial philosophy that follows the law as written rather than divining intent. During the Trump case, he has kept things moving and done what he can to lower the temperature.

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