By Jessie Seigel / Washington, D.C.
If you don’t know the name Fani Willis yet, you will soon enough. Willis, the first female district attorney (D.A.) to be elected in Fulton County, which includes Atlanta, is quickly coming to national attention as the intrepid prosecutor spearheading a criminal investigation into Donald Trump’s attempts to overthrow the results of the 2020 presidential election in Georgia. While U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland has—until very recently—appeared only to mouth the sentiment that his department would “pursue justice without fear or favor,” Willis long ago visibly put those words into action.
In 2020, Fani (pronounced FAH-nee) Willis won a Democratic primary against her boss, Fulton County D.A. Paul Howard, by a nearly 3-to-1 margin (getting more than 73% of the vote and dominating in each precinct of Georgia’s most populous county). She went on to win the office in the general election.
A first-term D.A., Willis wasted no time in her pursuit of justice. She fearlessly launched her investigation of Trump’s January 2, 2021 phone call to Georgia’s Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger in her second month in office. By January 2022, she had requested a special grand jury to aid her investigation. The request was granted. That special grand jury has subpoena power and, in July, a judge approved subpoenas, among others, for Rudy Giuliani and John Eastman, along with Senator Lindsey Graham.
So while Merrick Garland seems to hide any action his office might be taking on these matters, Willis—like the House January 6 committee—has taken a very public lead.
Willis’ office recently warned pro-Trump fake electors in Georgia that they could face charges. This included notifying State Senator Burt Jones, the Republican candidate for lieutenant governor in Georgia, that he could face indictment.
But because Willis headlined a primary fundraiser for Democrat Charlie Bailey, who has since become Jones’ opponent for lieutenant governor in the general election, an Atlanta judge has disqualified the D.A. from developing the criminal case against Jones.
The judge nevertheless acknowledged that Willis’ choice to headline the primary fundraiser “was within her rights as an elected official to make.”
Fortunately, Willis’ support of Bailey in his primary is not fatal to her investigation of Jones. The judge found that Willis’ office can still ask witnesses about Jones’ role, so long as the decision of whether to bring charges is left to a different prosecutor’s office.
The judge’s decision was technically correct. But it nevertheless reflects a world in which Democrats must be purer than Caesar’s wife, while Republicans are often permitted to act as corruptly Machiavellian as Richard the III and Iago combined.
But never mind. Willis’ role in the effort to save our democracy in this time of crisis may be the most historically remembered work she ever does. And the reach of her other work, given time, may be even greater than that.
Willis’ background bears some resemblance to that of Ketanji Brown Jackson, the first Black female Supreme Court Justice,. Like Jackson, Willis was highly motivated to become a lawyer at a young age. After being elected D.A,. Willis told South Atlanta Magazine, “From being a very, very little girl until I sit here today, there was never anything I’ve ever wanted to do but practice law or sit on the bench.”
Jackson attended Harvard for both undergraduate and law school. Willis attended the most elite of the historically Black colleges, Howard University, followed by top tier Emory University School of Law.
Like Justice Jackson, Willis brings a breadth of legal experience to her work. She spent 16 years as a prosecutor in the Fulton County district attorney’s office. One of her preeminent cases was an Atlanta public schools cheating scandal in which she prosecuted teachers and administrators for violating the state RICO statute.
However, in 2018, Willis went into private practice, specializing in criminal defense and family law. She also served on Georgia’s Judicial Qualification Division—one of the few African-Americans to ever do so—where she prosecuted unethical judiciary actions.
According to the South Atlanta Journal, Willis’ “mission as a prosecutor is to ensure that misconduct by any person in Fulton County has its proper consideration and equivalent treatment, regardless of race, class, and/or government position.”
Willis’ approach is tough but even-handed, judicious, and forward-looking. Her philosophy goes beyond simply getting convictions. In January 2021, she told the South Atlantic Magazine: “Who are the people that we can redirect?... And who do we just need [removed] from us?” While Willis maintained that those who commit violent crimes need to be removed from society, she added that if one had committed some lesser crime, “ and you don’t really understand how much that hurts the community, I think those people can be worked with and given the opportunity. And we’re going to do everything in my power to make those opportunities happen.”
Willis described to the South Atlantic Journal her Pre-Indictment Diversion Plan, which would permit those who’ve made “felony mistakes” the opportunity to avoid indictment with individually customized community service and higher education.
Willis attributes her given name, Fani Taifa, which means “prosperous people” in Swahili, to her father, who was a Black Panther and very “Afrocentric.” She has emphasized that “prosperous” in this context does not refer to wealth but to “stuff that really matters. I always remember my roots, that I come from a prosperous people, which are African people.” It seems quite possible that Fani Taifa’s hard-headed yet compassionate approach to prosecution vs. rehabilitation without prison emanates from her roots as well.
At both the U.S. Supreme Court and the Fulton County D.A.’s office, it seems that Black female jurists are leading the way in the 21st century. If we choose to follow, society may well be the better for it.
Political columnist Jessie Seigel had a long career as a government attorney in which she honed her analytic skills. She has also twice received an Artist’s Fellowship from the Washington, D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities for her fiction, and has been a finalist for a number of literary awards. In addition, Seigel is an associate editor at the Potomac Review, a reviewer for The Washington Independent Review of Books, and a dabbler in political cartoons at Daily Kos. Of this balance in her work between the analytic and the imaginative, Seigel jokes, “I guess my right and left brains are well-balanced.” More on and from Seigel can be found at The Adventurous Writer, https://www.jessieseigel.com.