A number of defendants in the Georgia state racketeering case against Donald Trump and 18 others are attempting to have the case removed (or transferred) to the Federal District Court.
There is no question that the charges against these 19 individuals are for violations of Georgia state law. It made sense, then, that the prosecutor filed the charges in the state court. As of this writing, at least two of the defendants have asked that their cases be transferred to the Federal District Court because there are federal law issues that arise from their conduct.
Here is where it gets a bit complicated. As a general rule, purely state law violations are tried in state court. Similarly, federal law violations are tried in the federal courts. The defendants are suggesting that there are state AND federal implications to their charges. As such, the only proper place to hold the trial (if the case is not dismissed) is the Federal District Court. That argument is correct. A state court does not have jurisdiction (or the authority to hear the case) when there are Federal law issues, but a federal court properly takes jurisdiction if there are both federal and state issues.
In order to have the case removed to federal court, defendants must show that their conduct raised federal law issues that were not considered when the charges against them were brought. Those federal issues are, according to the argument, essential to their defense.
As a defendant, I am telling the court that even if everything in the indictment against me is true, I still should not be found guilty because I have a complete federal excuse for what I did. Federal law provides many protections for individuals who are serving in a federal office, including being immune (free) from prosecution if what they did was part of their job. This is an important and legitimate safeguard.
The problem for defendants is that they cannot even raise the federal defense issue in the state court. Therefore, the defendants in the Georgia state case have asked the Federal District Court in Georgia to take the case to raise them.
What the district court judge needs to decide from the outset is whether there truly is a federal issue. This is not an automatic decision. The judge must determine whether there is an actual federal issue or whether the defendant is simply trying to get the case moved to the federal court to get it out of the state court. In other words, is this a legitimate defense.
There are a number of reasons why a defendant would want the case transferred to the federal court.
The best outcome is a finding that the defendant has a complete federal defense to his or her actions. The case is then dismissed before a trial even takes place. Even if the judge rules against the defendant on the federal arguments, the case does not then go back to the state court. The federal court retains jurisdiction.
If the case goes to trial, I want it heard in the federal court. Here are a few of the many reasons.
First, delay. If one of my goals is to stretch out the process, removing the case to the federal court adds additional procedural steps before trial, and each of these take time. Some federal issues (if decided against the defendant) can be appealed even before a trial occurs. Also, due to the federal court calendar, trials will often be scheduled later.
Second, there is a larger pool of qualified attorneys to defend you. The federal rules of evidence and procedure are generally universal (with some notable exceptions). Rules and procedures in the state courts vary substantially. Therefore, lawyers who practice in the federal courts anywhere in the country have a degree of familiarity on their side.
Third, the jury pool for the district court is larger and presumably more diverse. This is especially helpful in geographic areas where the state court populace is not particularly favorable to your side. The goal of every defendant is to have jury members who do not think alike and are even antagonistic to each other.
Fourth, if you lose, you generally are processed through the federal incarceration system where conditions are generally better (a relative term) than state prisons.
With all that said, there is one “benefit” to a federal court trial that is absent when a case is removed from the state court—pardons. Federal convictions can generally be pardoned by the president; state convictions cannot. However, since the federal court is ultimately hearing a case on state issues, any pardoning options remain the same as if the trial were held in the state court.