A few weeks ago, Scott McAfee, the judge overseeing the election campaign against Donald Trump and eighteen co-defendants in Georgia, issued a surprising ruling: The trials would be streamed online and broadcast live on television. This was a departure from the criminal cases against Trump in New York and Florida. McAfee said the ruling was “consistent with the spirit of transparency.” Some feared that this would allow Trump to turn the case into a television spectacle. But the skeptics may be underestimating McAfee. A look back at his body of work reveals an entertainer who has a knack for surprising his audience.
See, for example, the What-A-Man competition for performative young men held annually in the early 2000s at North Cobb High School in Kennesaw, Georgia. Contestants presented their best pick-up lines and revealed other talents. Usually the quarterback won. But in 2007, a self-proclaimed “orch idiot” took home the honor. This idiot? Scott McAfee. Tall and dressed all in black, he wore a stars and stripes bandana around his blonde hair as he performed Jimi Hendrix’s version of “The Star-Spangled Banner” on an electrified cello. His classmates shouted for him to throw his shirt into the crowd.
“I declined,” McAfee recalled recently. “I was the lifeguard who always kept his shirt on.” However, he fell to his knees and brought the strings of the cello to his mouth.
“There was probably some tongue play that we would normally associate with a wind instrument,” said Richard Prior, who conducted the Emory Youth Symphony, in which McAfee played at the time. “But he mastered the material.” McAfee then enrolled at Emory on a music scholarship. He had no problems with more traditionally demanding works such as Gustav Holst’s suite “The Planets” and Brahms’ Double Concerto, which he performed at his final concert.
Off campus, McAfee made money performing at weddings and once by filling in for cellist Janelle Monáe during the recording of her first album. “I was in the basement,” he said. “I heard her warming up upstairs.” He continued: “The way it was cut, I sounded like Yo-Yo Ma.” A few months later he bought the CD and eagerly skipped to track 16. “They cut my two-minute intro,” he said. “But I still got a check for five hundred dollars from Atlantic Records.” It was the same amount he had earned in eleventh grade from six nights of Christmas shows at a church. He decided to apply to law school.
At the University of Georgia, McAfee became a member of the Federalist Society — “a networking opportunity,” he said, “not a cabal” — and treasurer of the Law Republicans. He played “Smooth Criminal” on the cello at his class’s talent show. After graduating from law school, he worked as a prosecutor and federal prosecutor and then became Georgia’s inspector general. He performed less frequently but found an audience on Facebook. When the final season of “Game of Thrones” premiered (“What a disappointment,” he said of the ending), he released a video in which he performed the series’ theme on banjo — his second favorite instrument — and cello played. He also posted a video in which his Goldendoodle on bass appears to be playing “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke.” (McAfee knelt behind the dog.) His last public appearance was for a Kol Nidre service at a north Atlanta temple last fall. “I wore a yarmulke,” he said, adding, “I haven’t dusted the cello much since I got this new job.”
Earlier this year, McAfee, 34, was appointed to the Fulton County Superior Court. He was randomly selected to work on the Trump case in August. The decision to televise the proceedings was in keeping with his typical court rules.
“I have no ambition to be the next Judge Ito,” he said, referring to Lance Ito, the bearded, bespectacled judge who presided over the 1995 trial of OJ Simpson as 150 million Americans watched. “Or the next Judge Judy.” The Trump trial is sure to top both Ito and Judy’s ratings. He continued: “The idea of my job generally is to keep your head down. Stay balanced and manage expectations. This is not What-A-Man North Cobb 2007. Mission accomplished if I personally bore everyone to death during my exams.”
He has a backup plan in case the Big One goes off the rails under his watch. “I have my eye on some bagpipes,” he said. “You only need to learn about three songs and you can get what you want for any wedding.” ♦