By SUDHIN THANAWALA (Associated Press)
ATLANTA (AP) — Judge Peter Cahill barely slept in the six weeks he presided over the murder trial of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin in the killing of George Floyd.
Cameras in the courtroom broadcast every word from the veteran Minnesota judge to a worldwide audience. Outside, the nation waited nervously for the outcome of a murder that galvanized the movement for racial justice.
“When you’re in a high-profile trial, you feel the stress, the pressure, even if you’re not reading the newspaper,” he told an audience of judges at the National Judicial College in Reno, Nevada, last year.
Cahill’s experience provides insight into the additional scrutiny and burden that awaits the four judges overseeing the criminal cases against former President Donald Trump.
But the challenge facing Judge Scott McAfee of Fulton County, Georgia, is unlike any other. On the one hand, he is so far the only judge who allows television cameras in the courtroom to broadcast hearings and possible negotiations. He is leading a massive indictment involving 19 defendants, including other prominent figures such as former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Trump White House chief of staff Mark Meadows. And the trials will take place in a battleground state that Trump narrowly lost in 2020.
Lawyers who have worked with McAfee, who took the bench just this year, say his demeanor and years of work as a prosecutor prepared him for increased pressure. The judge’s diverse interests – he is an accomplished cellist and was a scuba diver at the Georgia Aquarium – should also provide relief from the stress of a long legal battle.
But the experience of some judges who have been forced into the public eye points to potential pitfalls and dangers that lie ahead for the 34-year-old Georgia native. Trump-nominated U.S. District Judge Aileen Cannon in Florida has already faced intense criticism for making an early decision that favored the former president in his fight against allegations of illegally hoarding classified documents.
High-profile cases result in a “major intrusion into your life,” said Senior U.S. Judge Reggie Walton, who presided over the 2007 trial of I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, a former top aide to Vice President Dick Cheney, and the 2012 trial of Pitcher Roger Clemens.
“Sometimes articles are written that may be off base,” he said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press. “They can sometimes cause mild heartburn.”
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Lance Ito was accused of self-promotion for giving an interview during OJ Simpson’s trial in 1994. Critics also said he was too sensitive to criticism in the press and failed to control the proceedings, causing the case to drag on for months and become a spectacle. “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno” mocked the trial with a sketch featuring dancers in beards and black robes: the Dancing Itos.
In Florida, a judicial commission found that District Judge Elizabeth Scherer violated several rules of judicial conduct during the criminal trial of Parkland school shooter Nikolas Cruz last year. Among other things, she “inappropriately” chastised the lead public defender and improperly hugged members of the prosecution in the courtroom after she sentenced Cruz to life in prison without parole, the commission said. Scherer, now retired, told the commission she also offered to hug the defense team.
Delaware Supreme Court Justice Eric Davis, who presided over Dominion Voting Systems’ defamation lawsuit against Fox News, said he found that even a laugh can be misunderstood.
“Sarcasm doesn’t come across well. That’s what I learned,” he said at a meeting of the American Bar Association in August.
The cases may also raise safety concerns. Some of the judges overseeing Trump’s criminal cases have already received threats. U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan, who is presiding over the federal election overturning case in Washington, has increased security after a woman was arrested for threatening to kill.
McAfee did not respond to interview requests from The Associated Press. But in a sign that he understands the potential dangers that lie ahead, he told The New Yorker that he has no ambition to become the next Ito or Judge Judy.
“The idea of my job generally is to keep your head down,” he told the magazine. “Stay balanced and manage expectations.”
Lawyers who know McAfee say he is up for the challenge.
Although he has presided over only a few trials, McAfee’s previous court experience shows he has great confidence and poise, said Han Chung, an attorney who worked with McAfee in the Fulton County District Attorney’s Office.
As an assistant district attorney, McAfee prosecuted hundreds of crimes, including murder and armed robberies. He remained unflappable despite harsh questioning from a judge or the stares of a jury, Chung said.
Chung, who is now a prosecutor in nearby Gwinnett County, recalled that in 2016 he placed second to McAfee for the best trial attorney in his unit.
“To do our job, you can’t be afraid of the courtroom,” he said. “He was someone who wasn’t afraid of anything.”
At a hearing earlier this month for two of Trump’s co-defendants, McAfee was polite, flagged a key potential stumbling block in the prosecution, and decided directly from the bench that the two would be tried together. When a prosecutor asked for two weeks to file a brief, the judge gave him six days.
At a second hearing days later, a defense attorney accused a prosecutor of defaming the lawyer’s colleague. McAfee said the prosecutor’s comment was not an issue for the court, but the attorney talked about him and moved on. McAfee let him continue for a moment before interrupting.
“I said it’s over,” he told the lawyer, who continued to protest as he left the lectern.
McAfee later patiently listened to the same lawyer’s suggestion about scheduling the trial.
Retired Massachusetts Supreme Court Justice E. Susan Garsh, who presided over the 2015 murder trial of New England Patriots star Aaron Hernandez, told the AP: “You want to be a very strong presence, but not part of it Become history.”
Garsh recalled getting a weekly massage and listening to audiobooks during her commute to ease the stress of the process.
She also said she tried to anticipate as many problems as possible. That included making sure people in the courtroom weren’t wearing Patriots jerseys, she said.
For McAfee, this may mean honoring his previous work with the Fulton County District Attorney’s Office. His superior there at times was Fani Willis, who brought the charges against Trump and the 18 other defendants.
Trump has attacked Willis, a Democrat, as a “rabid partisan” and his lawyers may raise an issue with McAfee’s work under her. His legal team has already filed motions asking two of the judges overseeing the cases against him – Chutkan, who was nominated by President Barack Obama, and New York Judge Juan Manuel Merchan, who also oversaw the Trump Organization’s tax fraud trial – to do so , to withdraw bias. Merchan rejected the request. Chutkan has yet to rule.
But McAfee, who graduated from the University of Georgia with a law degree in 2013, also has a conservative stance.
He worked for Republican Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp’s administration and, while in law school, was a member of the Federalist Society, a group closely aligned with Republican priorities.
In 2021, Kemp named McAfee to head Georgia’s Office of Inspector General, tasked with uncovering fraud and waste in state government. McAfee previously worked for the U.S. Attorney’s Office, where he prosecuted drug trafficking groups.
In a press release announcing his appointment as coach last year, Kemp’s office noted that McAfee is married, has two children, was captain of a tennis team, received a scholarship to play the cello as a student at Emory University and is a volunteer Divers hired as divers at the Georgia Aquarium.
These activities could prove helpful to McAfee as he leads the Georgia case.
“Hopefully you have a life outside of the law,” Cahill said during his talk in Reno about handling high-profile cases. “Something where you can get away from the law and have a good time.”