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Fani Willis ethics case may reverberate long after judge decision: Experts

Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis testifies during a hearing in the case of the State of Georgia v. Donald John Trump at the Fulton County Courthouse on Feb. 15, 2024 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Alyssa Pointer-Pool/Getty Images)

(NEW YORK) — Over the last few weeks, Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis, who is leading the prosecution against former President Donald Trump and his allies over alleged election interference in Georgia, has been put on the hot seat after she was accused by multiple defendants’ attorneys of a conflict of interest with a fellow prosecutor.

Willis and Nathan Wade admitted in court to having a romantic relationship but have contended their relationship “has never involved direct or indirect financial benefit” to the DA.

Legal experts told ABC News that the extra court drama will reverberate long in the court of public opinion after the judge makes his decision and will impact how the prosecution and defense present their cases.

“I don’t think there is any scenario where this is a bad situation for the prosecutor. At the minimum, it will distract from the core information of the case and delay the trial,” Scott Cummings, the Robert Henigson Professor of Legal Ethics at the UCLA School of Law, told ABC News.

Cummings said the biggest problem with the ethics violation allegations is that it’s adding another distraction to the high-profile case.

Even if the judge dismisses Trump co-defendant Michael Roman’s motion to remove Willis from the case, Cummings predicted the former president and co-defendants’ attorneys will constantly bring up her relationship with Wade to sow distrust.

“In the near term, when it comes to optics and public perception, it does unfortunately interfere with the perception of integrity. I think it’s unfortunate because there is no underlying basis for the questioning of whether or not the prosecution was legitimate,” Cummings said.

John Acevedo, a visiting associate professor at Emory School of Law, told ABC News that motions of attorney conflict of interest are common in criminal cases, but Willis’ situation is one of the rare times where an accusation has been made against two prosecutors.

Most conflict motions are made because of relationships or past issues between a prosecutor and defense attorney, Acevedo said.

“This does not fit the normal pattern that attorneys are looking for, so it’s not surprising that [Willis’] office didn’t think it could be a problem,” he said.

Acevedo said from the testimony he’s seen so far in the hearings, the matter was a “slip up,” and said Willis, Wade and others have so far shown good counterarguments to the defense’s claims.

Last week, Willis took the stand in the court hearings over the motion and pushed back against the accusations, telling defense attorney Ashleigh Merchant, who filed the motion, “You lied.”

“You think I’m on trial. These people are on trial for trying to steal an election in 2020. I’m not on trial, no matter how hard you try to put me on trial,” Willis testified Thursday.

The testimony got heated with Steve Sadow, Trump’s attorney, and Merchant objecting to Willis’ accusations before being broken up by the judge.

Willis also contended that she and Wade did not start dating until 2022, after he was hired by the Fulton County DA’s office.

Cummings said the DA was wise in taking the stand to tell her side of the story and respond to the allegations even if it meant she was thrust further into the spotlight. He said from the testimony he’s seen so far, Willis and the DA’s office have a solid job of countering the defense’s claims of a conflict of interest.

“The key question is financial benefit and I don’t see any evidence that contradicted her claim,” he said.

Acevedo said if the judge does remove Willis from the case, it would lead to a legal procedure to determine which Georgia prosecutorial office would take over the case, which would cause a lengthy delay.

“It could possibly end the case officially but practically,” he said.

If the judge dismisses the motion, Acevedo said there is a chance that the issue over Willis’ and Wade’s relationship could blow over because of the ever-changing media cycle, but he predicted Trump and the co-defendants’ attorneys will keep bringing it up in news conferences, interviews and other media appearances.

Acevedo noted that the ethics violation allegations and the court hearings surrounding it will come into play during jury selection for the Trump trial.

“You’re going to have to screen people over a few new issues. You’ll need to screen people over whether or not they think less of the prosecution because of the allegations, but also screen people over whether or not they think less of the defense because of the way they questioned Willis,” Acevedo said.

Moving forward, Acevedo said Willis’ ethics case will prompt the Fulton County DA’s office and other prosecuting offices to expand their scope of potential conflicts of interest.

“At the end of the day, it’s up to district attorney offices to make sure that there are no distractions,” he said.

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