But Federal District Judge Steve Jones’s opinion in Mark Meadows’s case is an exception to the rule. It provides a meticulous and carefully reasoned rebuke to Meadows’s effort to get a more favorable jury and to escape from the glare of television by having his case tried in a federal court rather than in a Georgia state court. More important, it offers a powerful civics lesson for all who read it.
Along the way, the opinion makes clear that Meadows failed to do what every White House chief of staff must do — namely, make sure that each member of the White House staff remembers that they are there to serve the American people, not just the president. And, if that were not enough, it also shows that Meadows was a terrible witness when he took the stand to testify in the removal hearing.
Further, Jones’s opinion is a reminder of the federal government’s limited role in supervising the conduct of elections in this country and of the important prohibitions on political activities by federal officeholders.
Both these reminders suggest that former President Trump abused his office during his months-long efforts to reverse his 2020 defeat. Jones’s opinion goes on to deliver a blow to one of the pillars of Trump’s response to the criminal charges contained in Fani Willis’s election interference indictment.
That indictment charged the former president and 18 others with violations of Georgia law arising from their efforts to overthrow the results of the 2020 presidential election. Those violations include conspiracy under the state’s anti-racketeering statute.
The Georgia indictment details Meadows’s important role in that conspiracy, identifying a variety of overt acts that the former White House chief of staff carried out in furtherance of that conspiracy.
Among them was his participation in the Jan. 2, 2021, phone call during which Donald Trump asked Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to find the 11,780 votes necessary to change the results of the presidential election in that state. Meadows’s trip Cobb County, Ga., to observe a signature matching audit of the voting rolls is another act listed as furthering the conspiracy.
Within hours after Willis’s indictment was handed down, Meadows filed his removal petition. He alleged that “The conduct giving rise to the charges in the indictment all occurred during his tenure and as part of his service as Chief of Staff.” Removal, he argued, was allowed where a federal official was charged with a crime under state law for any act “relating to any act under color of [his] office.”
Meadows contended the conduct that was the subject of the Georgia indictment was “authorized by federal law or the Constitution” and that he did no “more than what was necessary and proper” to effectuate his federal duty.
Judge Jones found both of those contentions wanting.
Even under what he characterized as the “quite low bar for federal officer removal,” the judge concluded that Meadows had not proven that what he allegedly did in the conspiracy was innocently done and part of his role as White House chief of staff or authorized by federal law.
Jones detailed the many ways in which Meadows failed as a public servant and instead became an instrument of Trump’s coup attempt. As the judge noted, “The evidence adduced at the hearing establishes that the actions at the heart of the State’s charges against Meadows were taken on behalf of the Trump campaign the ultimate goal of affecting state election activities and procedures” rather than as part of his “federal role as White House Chief of Staff.”
And, adding insult to injury, the judge suggested that Meadows had violated the Hatch Act, which prohibits a federal employee from using “his official authority or influence for the purpose of affecting the result of an election.” He also pointed out several ways that Meadows hurt himself when he took the witness stand, including that he knew that he was bound by the Hatch Act and could not lawfully engage in political activity.
And Meadows could not “explain the limits of his authority,” even though he served as Trump’s chief of staff for almost a year.
Jones declined to do what Meadows wanted: to turn a blind eye to the authority of states “to determine their election procedures, as well as federal statutory and regulatory limitations on political activities of the executive branch officials.”
But the decision about federal removal was not just a decisive rebuke to Meadows.
Jones included a lesson about the conduct of American elections in his decision. He explained that “‘[T]he Framers of the Constitution intended the States to keep for themselves … The power to regulate elections.’” That power, Jones said, is not “incident to a state’s police powers but ‘derives from an express grant in the Constitution.’”
To drive home the point that federal government officials should not interfere with the exercise of that power, the judge paid particular attention to the assertion that the president and those who work with him have any role in ensuring the integrity of American elections. As he put it, in clear and direct prose, “The Constitution does not provide any basis for executive branch involvement state election and post-election procedures. … As a constitutional matter,” Jones continued, “executive power does not extend to overseeing states’ elections.”
In addition to their value in educating the public, those observations offer a decisive rebuke to Donald Trump’s repeated assertions that he “participated in two perfect phone calls regarding election integrity in Georgia,” and that he was “entitled to do — in fact, as President, it was President Trump’s Constitutional duty to ensure election safety, security, and integrity.”
Trump claimed that everyone involved in his election interference activities understood that he was simply doing his duty. As he said, “Between the two calls, there were many officials and attorneys on the line, including the Secretary of State of Georgia, and no one objected, even slightly protested, or hung up.”
Judge Jones has done us all a service by registering his objection. While his decision may be appealed, it offers cold comfort to Trump, Meadows and others who want Americans to believe that they were doing their duty and serving the people by advancing the Big Lie.
Jones’s decision is also a reminder that laws still matter in this country, and that we are all well served when judges do their best, as the great Supreme Court Justice John Marshall wrote long ago, just “to say what the law is.”
Austin Sarat (@ljstprof) is the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Jurisprudence and Political Science at Amherst College. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of Amherst College.
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