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Appeals Court Nixes Review of Trump Files Seized From Mar-a-Lago

Intelligencer 12/2/2022 Chas Danner
Mar-a-Lago. Joe Raedle/Getty Images © Joe Raedle/Getty Images Mar-a-Lago. Joe Raedle/Getty Images

A three-judge panel at 11th Circuit Court of Appeals has halted the outside review of thousands of documents seized from Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate by federal agents. In an unanimous ruling, the appeals court panel effectively excoriated U.S. District Judge Aileen M. Cannon’s earlier intervention in the case. In September, the Trump-appointed lower court judge had sided with the former president and both appointed a special master to conduct a review the seized files and barred federal investigators from using the documents until that review was complete. On Thursday, the 11th Circuit vacated Cannon’s order and dismissed Trump’s lawsuit.

Unless Trump successfully seeks a stay in within seven days, the appeals court ruling will allow the Justice Department to regain full access to the files, removing a significant obstacle in its criminal investigation into Trump’s alleged mishandling of classified documents.

Judge Cannon’s earlier ruling had already been widely criticized as legally dubious, and the three judges on the appeals court panel — all of whom were appointed by Republican presidents, including two by Trump — clearly agree that the criticism was warranted. Even the court’s summary of its 21-page unsigned opinion was blunt:

The 11th Circuit explained that “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.”

“To create a special exception here,” the opinion continued, “would defy our nation’s foundational principle that our law applies ‘to all, without regard to numbers, wealth, or rank.’”

The 11th Circuit also emphasized that granting the special master review of the seized documents represented a “dramatic and unwarranted” overreach by the lower court’s authority, and that allowing the ruling to stand would upend the legal system:

The law is clear. 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. Either approach would be a radical reordering of our case law limiting the federal courts’ involvement in criminal investigations. And both would violate bedrock separation-of-powers limitations.

The opinion went further still in its smackdown of Cannon’s decision, noting that “the district court stepped in with its own reasoning” more than once — providing legal arguments in support of Trump’s lawsuit that the former president’s lawyers had not made themselves.

The 11th Circuit had already granted the Justice Departments’s request to regain access to more than a 100 documents marked as classified that had been seized by federal agents from Mar-a-Lago, and the U.S. Supreme Court declined Trump’s request to appeal that decision. It’s not yet clear if or when Trump will appeal Thursday’s ruling. The DoJ’s criminal probes of Trump, including the classified file investigation, are now being led by special prosecutor Jack Smith following Trump’s announcement of his 2024 presidential campaign.

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