A federal appeals court on Thursday unanimously ordered a federal trial judge in Florida to stop interfering with the Justice Department’s criminal investigation of how 200,000 pages of government documents – many of them highly secret — wound up at former President Donald Trump’s private resort, Mar-a-Lago.
A recurring them throughout the 21-page ruling was that Trump, as a former President, had no special rights that he could claim in challenging the seizure of the documents and what government prosecutors may do with them. Quoting from a Supreme Court decision in 1794, the opinion remarked: “To create a special exception here would defy our nation’s fundamental principle that our law applies ‘to all, without regard to numbers, wealth, or rank.’ “
The appeals court rejected every one of the legal arguments that Trump or his lawyers had made – calling some of them “a sideshow” – in their attempt to block prosecutors from using the trove of government documents seized during an FBI search at Mar-a-Lago on August 8.
Using mostly restrained judicial language, the tribunal nonetheless issued a stinging rebuke of U.S. District Judge Aileen M. Cannon of West Palm Beach, Fla., who has kept the government investigation of the Mar-a-Lago documents under a legal cloud for three months. She has relied on a theory of her authority that the new decision found to be entirely without legal support. The order told her to dismiss the entire proceeding, which Trump began two weeks after the search was carried out.
Methodically ticking off the four parts of the formula long used to determine if a federal judge has the kind of authority that Judge Cannon claimed, the appeals tribunal turned each aside. Among those, it indicated, the most important is whether the property was seized with a “callous disregard” of the rights of the occupant of the property. The court found no evidence of that; even Judge Cannon had found no evidence of that, but she said Trump was entitled to some special concern as a former President. That argument was firmly rejected by the three-judge panel.
The Justice Department had obtained authority from a different federal judge in Florida to make the search of Trump’s resort, saying that it was probing whether the former President had mishandled or destroyed some of the papers, whether he had obstructed the investigation, and whether he had violated espionage law. The government is carrying on a separate national security intelligence probe, to try to determine if the documents fell into the wrong hands. Officials also are trying to find out if Trump had any such documents at his other hotels or properties.
Trump has the legal right to take the issue to the Supreme Court, but he has already been rebuffed there, when the Justices refused in mid-October – without any noted dissents – to hear a preliminary legal challenge by the Trump team.
The new ruling by the three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit – known to be a generally conservative bench – was an unsigned opinion that spoke for three judges who were appointed by either President George W. Bush or by Trump himself. The panel included Chief Circuit Judge William H. Pryor, Jr., and Circuit Judges Britt C. Grant and Andrew L. Brasher.
The final page of the ruling declared that Judge Cannon had “improperly” granted Trump’s plea to set up an official review of the documents by a “special master” – a federal judge from New York — to determine if the former President had any legitimate legal claim to get the documents, or at least some of them, returned to him. The appeals court said Trump and his lawyers had offered no valid argument that he had a right to take them or get them back, even the personal items that were taken when they were mixed in with official papers.
The new ruling indicated that it would take effect in seven days. But it specified that the opinion was to be circulated among all 11 active judges on the Eleventh Circuit Court. The full court could reconsider the dispute, by a majority vote of the 11. Trump’s lawyers could ask for that, or they could go on to the Supreme Court, or both. They might first ask for a postponement of Thursday’s ruling pending further challenges.
The Justice Department criminal investigation of the document dispute is now being handled by a special federal prosecutor, Jack Smith, who will have the authority to recommend criminal charges if he finds sufficient evidence, but the ultimate decision to charge Trump would lie with Attorney General Merrick Garland.