In another legal blow to Trump, appeals court overturns special master in document fight
A U.S. federal appeals court on Thursday unanimously ended an independent review of documents seized from former President Donald Trump’s estate in Florida, removing a roadblock the Justice Department said had delayed his criminal investigation into the retention of top secret government information.
The three-judge panel’s decision represents a significant victory for federal prosecutors, clearing the way for them to use in their investigation the entire tranche of documents seized in an August 8 FBI search in Mar- a-Lago.
It also amounts to a stark rejection of the arguments of Trump’s lawyers, who for months had said the former president had the right to have a so-called ‘special master’ conduct a neutral review of the thousands of withdrawn documents. of the property.
The decision of the United States Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, based in Atlanta, was expected given the skeptical questions the judges posed to a Trump lawyer during closing arguments last week, and because two of the three judges on the panel had previously ruled in favor of the Justice Department in an earlier dispute over the special captain.
The decision was a unanimous opinion of the panel of three Republican-appointed judges, including two who were selected by Trump. In it, the court rejected every argument by Trump and his lawyers as to why a special master was needed, including his claims that the seized records were protected by attorney-client privilege or executive privilege.
“It is indeed extraordinary that a warrant should be executed at the home of a former president – but not in a way that affects our legal analysis or gives the judiciary permission to interfere in an ongoing investigation,” wrote the judges.
Trump is likely to appeal the 11th Circuit’s ruling to the conservative-majority U.S. Supreme Court. The 11th Circuit said its order would only take effect for seven days, during which time Trump could seek to challenge it.
A Trump spokesperson called the decision « purely procedural and based solely on jurisdiction, » and said it did not address the merits of the case.
Trump « will continue to fight the armed ‘Justice’ Department while standing up for America and Americans, » the spokesperson added.
In October, the United States Supreme Court rejected Trump’s efforts to have the High Court hear an emergency appeal related to the search.
Separate current case
The special main litigation proceeded alongside an ongoing investigation examining potential criminal mishandling of national defense information as well as efforts to possibly obstruct that investigation. Last month, U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland appointed Jack Smith, a veteran public corruption prosecutor, to serve as special counsel to oversee that investigation.
It’s unclear how long the investigation will last or who, if anything, could be charged. But the investigation has shown signs of escalating, with investigators questioning several Trump associates over the documents and granting a key ally immunity to testify before a federal grand jury. And the decision of the court of appeal should accelerate the investigation by cutting short the external examination of the files.
The dispute over the special master began just weeks after the FBI raid, when Trump filed a lawsuit in federal court in Florida seeking the appointment of an independent arbitrator to review the approximately 13,000 documents which, according to the Department of Justice, were removed from the home.
A federal judge, Aileen Cannon, granted the request of the Trump team, appointing veteran Brooklyn judge Raymond Dearie to serve as a special master and instructing him to review the records seized and filter from the criminal investigation all the documents that could be covered by claims of executive privilege. or solicitor-client privilege.
She also barred the Justice Department from using any of the seized files, including the nearly 100 with classification marks, in its criminal investigation until Dearie had completed her work.
The Justice Department opposed the appointment, saying it was an unnecessary obstacle to its criminal investigation and saying Trump had no credible basis to invoke solicitor-client privilege or the executive privilege to protect investigators’ records.
She sought, initially, to find the access to the classified documents. A federal appeals panel sided with prosecutors in September, allowing the Justice Department to resume its review of documents with classification marks. Two of the judges on that panel — Andrew Brasher and Britt Grant, both appointed by Trump — were also part of Thursday’s ruling.
The department also insisted on having access to the greatest amount of unclassified documents, saying that these documents could contain important evidence for their investigation.
In its ruling Thursday, the court ordered Cannon to dismiss the lawsuit that resulted in Dearie’s nomination and suggested that Trump had no legal basis to challenge the search in the first place.
« The law is clear. We cannot write a rule that allows any subject of a search warrant to block government investigations after the warrant is executed. Nor can we write a rule that only allows former presidents to do so,” the judges wrote.
“Either approach,” they added, “would be a sweeping reorganization of our jurisprudence limiting federal court involvement in criminal investigations. And both would violate the fundamental limits of the separation of powers.