Former President Donald Trump asked the Supreme Court on Tuesday to restore full control to a Florida federal judge of the historic dispute over his access to thousands of government documents, giving him a chance to regain possession even of highly classified secret data.
If the Justices grant the new Trump plea, it would push to the side, at least for the time being, a federal appeals court that moved last month to rein in part of the controversial actions of U.S. District Judge Aileen Cannon of West Palm Beach, Fla. Repeatedly, Cannon has ruled for Trump as he challenged the FBI’s seizure in August of more than 200,000 pages of documents from Trump’s Mar a Lago resort in Florida.
Trump claims that federal law governing presidential records gives him unchecked access to any document created while he was in the White House, and also gives him unchecked authority to declassify any secret document or data. He contends that these powers are being frustrated while the Justice Department decides whether to prosecute him for crimes related to his taking and handling of the vast collection of official papers.
The new 38-page legal filing specifically asked the Supreme Court to wipe out an order by the appeals court blocking Judge Cannon from controlling the review of who owns 103 seized documents that were marked classified, some of which contain the most sensitive national security, defense or intelligence secrets. The appeals court, Trump’s lawyers argued, had no authority even to consider a challenge to Judge Cannon, at this stage of the controversy.
Under normal procedure at the Court, the request was filed with Justice Clarence Thomas, who has the authority to act on emergency matters coming from that appeals court (which sits in the federal judiciary’s Eleventh Circuit, which includes Florida). Thomas promptly told the Biden Administration’s Justice Department to reply to the Trump plea by next Tuesday afternoon.
While some of Justice Thomas’s critics immediately made public demands that Thomas disqualify himself from any role in dealing with Trump’s legal situation, because his wife, Ginni Thomas, has made efforts to overturn his defeat in the 2020 election, it is up to the Justice himself to decide whether to take part, as he did Tuesday.
If, as expected, Thomas follows custom, he will share the decision on the new plea with all eight of his colleagues. He is not required to do so, but that is commonly done to prevent those seeking emergency orders from taking their request from one Justice to another. Normally, lower court orders are blocked temporarily by the votes of at least five Justices, although Thomas could do so on his own.
Under Judge Cannon’s orders, the review of all of the seized documents except those marked classified is going forward before a New York federal judge, Raymond Dearie, acting as “special master.” His task, with help, is to sort through all 200,000 pages of documents and make recommendations to Judge Cannon on which, if any, must be returned to Trump, under various claims of access or personal ownership.
While the Justice Department is joining in that process, it is pursuing an appeal to the Eleventh Circuit Court to overturn Judge Cannon, to end altogether her role in the document controversy and shutting down the process now going ahead before Judge Dearie.
Trump’s new appeal is based on highly technical points about when orders by a federal judge at the trial level can be appealed to a higher court. The former President’s legal application contends that there is nothing final and only preliminary actions by the judge so far, and that federal law denies appeals court jurisdiction to review such actions.
Meanwhile, at least before the Supreme Court acts, the Justice Department is continuing with its investigation of possible crimes by Trump in the handling of documents that were taken to Mar a Lago. It is unclear how the new maneuvering in the Supreme Court will or could affect that investigation.
The Justice Department and the government’s intelligence agencies are going forward with a wide-ranging inquiry on why Trump took the documents, what he has done with them, and who might have seen or used them.
Further, the appeals court is now studying a request by the Justice Department to speed up its review of the Department’s appeal seeking to oust Judge Cannon from this controversy. Trump is opposing the more rapid schedule the Department is seeking.