A federal appeals court halted a former Brooklyn federal judge’s review of documents seized from former President Donald Trump’s Florida resort by FBI agents in August.
In a major blow to Trump, the three-judge panel ruled unanimously that Florida federal judge Aileen Cannon had erred in appointing Raymond Dearie to scrutinize the documents for privileged information over the objections of the Biden Justice Department.
“The law is clear,” the judges wrote. “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.”
Cannon’s Sept. 5 order had slowed the pace of the probe into whether Trump violated federal law governing the retention of sensitive records by removing presidential papers and other documents to his home at Mar-a-Lago after leaving the White House in January 2021.
Trump, 76, and his legal team had argued the review was needed to screen out material covered by executive or attorney-client privilege. Cannon agreed, ordering the DOJ to stop using the seized documents as part of its criminal investigation until Dearie could complete his review.
But the judges, two of whom were nominated to the bench by the 45th president, found that Cannon had no authority to appoint the special master.
The judges ruled that the fact Trump is a former US president is not a circumstance extraordinary enough to justify court intervention in such an early stage of the probe.
“This restraint guards against needless judicial intrusion into the course of criminal investigations — a sphere of power committed to the executive branch,” the court wrote.
“It is indeed extraordinary for a warrant to be executed at the home of a former president — but not in a way that affects our legal analysis or otherwise gives the judiciary license to interfere in an ongoing investigation,” the judicial panel found.
The court argued that creating a “special exception” for Trump “would defy our Nation’s foundational principle that our law applies ‘to all, without regard to numbers, wealth, or rank.’”
The judges on the appeals court also ripped the district court judge for being convinced without sufficient evidence that because the FBI had briefly seized Trump’s passport that other “similar materials” could be in the DOJ’s hands.
“[Trump’s] jurisdictional brief in the district court asserted that the government had improperly seized his passports and that its continued custody of ‘similar materials’ was ‘both unnecessary and likely to cause significant harm.’ But the passports had already been returned before he filed his first motion, and his jurisdictional brief did not explain what ‘similar materials’ were at issue or why he needed them,” the judges wrote, adding that “The district court was undeterred by this lack of information.”
The appeals court instructed Cannon in its ruling to dismiss the entire underlying civil case.
Trump’s attorney James Trusty said during oral arguments before the 11th circuit that about 900 documents seized by the FBI were in dispute. Trusty contended that the documents are Trump’s personal records or privileged and should be kept outside the scope of the DOJ’s investigation.
Trump’s lawyers have not decided whether to appeal the ruling to the Supreme Court, but they are weighing the option, according to CNN.
The Justice Department’s investigation into Trump’s handling of presidential records is now being led by special counsel Jack Smith, who was appointed earlier this month by Attorney General Merrick Garland to handle all government proves into the former commander in chief now that he’s announced himself as a 2024 presidential candidate.