In a major defeat for former President Donald Trump, a federal appeals court on Thursday halted a third-party review of documents seized from his Mar-a-Lago estate.
The decision removes a major obstacle to the Justice Department’s investigation into the mishandling of government records from Trump’s time in the White House.
The three-judge panel at the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned U.S. District Judge Aileen Cannon’s order appointing a so-called special master to sift through thousands of documents found at Trump’s home to determine what should be denied to investigators. The court said the judge should not have intervened in the first place.
“The law is clear,” the appeals court wrote. “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 11th Circuit said either approach would be a “drastic reorganization of our case law limiting federal court involvement in criminal investigations” and that “both would violate fundamental limits on the separation of powers.”
The Justice Department is investigating obstruction of justice, criminal mishandling of government records and violations of the Espionage Act, according to court documents. The investigation exploded into public view with the August raid, which came after investigators obtained evidence they say led them to believe Trump failed to comply with a subpoena for all documents marked as classified stored at his home in Florida.
The opinion — which was issued jointly by the three-judge panel made up of all GOP appointees — dismantled Trump’s arguments as to why a special master was needed. The court said only in extraordinary circumstances should the courts intervene in Justice Department investigations that are still in their early stages, and that standard has not been met here.
“This restraint protects against unnecessary judicial intrusion into the course of criminal investigations – a sphere of power vested in the executive,” the court wrote.
The appeals court said its new ruling will take effect in seven days unless a party to the case successfully requests an order – known as a stay – suspending the entry into force of the decision while it is under appeal.
Trump’s legal team has not decided to appeal the decision to the Supreme Court, but is evaluating the option, a source familiar with the discussions told CNN.
The ruling is a scathing rebuke of how Cannon inserted herself into the dispute. In addition to quashing the order, the appeals court orders him to dismiss the entire case.
The appeals court took aim at the idea, raised in its order appointing the special master, that Trump deserves special treatment because he is a former president.
“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,” the court said.
Creating this “special exception,” the 11th Circuit wrote, “would go against our nation’s fundamental principle that our law applies ‘to all, without regard to number, wealth, or rank.’
The three-judge panel that made the ruling is made up of Republican presidential appointees, including two who were benched by Trump: Britt Grant and Andrew Basher. Both lawyers had previously hinted in a ruling related to the case that they believed Cannon had overstepped the mark.
The third, Justice William Pryor, the Chief Justice of the Court of Appeals, is a George W. Bush appointee who has long demonstrated conservative good faith on a host of controversial issues.
Trump had sought the special master in the weeks following the August search, obtaining the court order from Cannon. Judge Raymond Dearie, a senior judge who sits in Brooklyn, had been assigned by Cannon to lead the review of the thousands of remaining documents.
During closing arguments in the 11th Circuit case, Trump attorney James Trusty said only 900 of those documents were in dispute. Trump’s legal team argues the documents are his personal or privileged records and should be kept outside the scope of the investigation.
Lawyers for the Justice Department argued that the special master’s process could drag on for weeks or even months, hampering the investigation of the documents. Prosecutors said that without access to the other documents, they could not question witnesses about the materials that were found intermingled with classified documents at Mar-a-Lago.
The Justice Department effort is now being led by Special Counsel Jack Smith, who was named last week to lead this investigation and another probe into efforts to reverse Trump’s 2020 election defeat that may involve the former president and current candidate for the White House in 2024.
Smith took over the investigation shortly before the 11th Circuit heard oral arguments in the case and said in court papers that he agreed with the position taken by federal prosecutors. He has promised not to let his appointment slow the pace of the investigations he takes on.
This story has been updated with additional details.