Appeals court halts special master review of Trump Mar-a-Lago records
11th Circuit panel removed a major obstacle in Justice Dep't investigation into potential mishandling of classified records
A federal appeals court on Thursday unanimously reversed a Florida federal judge’s appointment of a special master to examine thousands of documents seized by the FBI from former President Donald Trump’s home, ruling the lower court lacked jurisdiction to consider the request for an outside review.
“The law is clear,” the ruling states. “We cannot write a rule that allows any subject of a search warrant to block government investigations after the execution of the warrant. Nor can we write a rule that allows only former presidents to do so.”
The three-judge panel of the Atlanta-based 11th Circuit Court of Appeals found that either approach “would be a radical reordering of our caselaw limiting the federal courts’ involvement in criminal investigations” and that both “would violate bedrock separation-of-powers limitations.”
Siding with arguments put forth by a government attorney during a hearing in the case last month, the panel rejected justifications put forth by the former president for why an outside arbiter should be appointed to decide whether any documents are protected by executive or attorney-client privilege. The court ruled that U.S. District Judge Aileen Cannon did not have jurisdiction to block the federal government from using lawfully seized records in a criminal investigation.
The panel included two Trump-appointed judges, U.S. Circuit Judges Britt Grant and Andrew Brasher, as well as Chief Circuit Judge Bill Pryor, a George H.W. Bush appointee.
Cannon, a Trump appointee, should not have exercised equitable jurisdiction in the lawsuit filed by Trump two weeks after the FBI conducted an Aug. 8 search of his Mar-a-Lago estate, the 11th Circuit ruled.
If the appeals court were to side with Trump, the ruling explains, it would upend precedent and require federal courts to “oversee routine criminal investigations beyond their constitutionally ascribed role of approving a search warrant based on a showing of probable cause.”
“Our precedents do not allow this, and neither does out constitutional structure,” the 21-page decision says.
The appeals court found that although it is “extraordinary” for a warrant to be executed at the home of a former president, it did not give “the judiciary license to interfere in an ongoing investigation.”
The decision removes a major obstacle in the Justice Department’s inquiry into the potential mishandling of presidential records. Prosecutors sought to use the records as part of their criminal investigation into the removal of government files from the White House at the end of Trump’s term in office in January 2021.
FBI agents seized more than 11,000 records, including 11 sets of classified documents. More than one hundred documents were marked confidential, secret or top secret.
Cannon issued a Sept. 5 order directing the appointment of a special master and blocking the government from using any of the seized documents pending resolution of the special master’s review. The order was stayed by the 11th Circuit as it applied to classified records.
Trump appealed that ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court, which declined to block it in a short October decision. The case then returned to the 11th Circuit, where the Justice Department asked for a full shut-down of the special master’s review.
The former president had offered a panoply of reasons justifying the need for a special master review process, arguing at turns that the government’s privilege review team protocols are inadequate, that some seized documents are protected by executive or attorney-client privilege or that he could have declassified documents.
The panel ruled that Trump has not proven that there was a “callous disregard” for his constitutional rights and has not demonstrated a need for the documents.
“Even if plaintiff’s statutory interpretation were correct (a proposition that we neither consider nor endorse), personal interest in or ownership of a seized document is not synonymous with the need for its return,” the ruling states.
It is unclear whether Trump will appeal the decision to the conservative-majority U.S. Supreme Court.
If no appeal is filed within seven days, the review by special master Raymond Dearie, a federal judge in the Eastern District of New York, will end and the case will be dismissed.