The Biden administration’s Department of Justice won a major victory over former President Donald Trump on Thursday when a federal appeals court panel threw out a lower court’s ruling that allowed a special master to review documents taken from Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Florida.
In August, federal officials staged a raid on Trump’s home and confiscated thousands of documents, saying many included sensitive and classified information. The former president sued to limit what the Justice Department would review in its investigation of documents that came to Florida with him when he left office in January 2021.
In September, Judge Aileen Cannon of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida sided with Trump and appointed a special master to review documents and determine which could be used by the DOJ, which sued to appeal the ruling.
The ruling Thursday by a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit in Atlanta takes effect Dec. 8. Barring an appeal, that would be the end of the special master’s review, according to The New York Times.
“The panel’s decision today is purely procedural and based only on jurisdiction,” a Trump representative said in a statement, according to The Washington Post.
“The decision does not address the merits that clearly demonstrate the impropriety of the unprecedented, illegal, and unwarranted raid on Mar-a-Lago,” the representative said.
The appellate court’s ruling said the crux of the case was whether Cannon had the power to act as she did. In the opinion of the three judges, she did not.
They said the circumstances of the case are such that it did not rise to the level at which Cannon could have intervened.
Although Trump said he sued to get back documents that included clearly personal papers, the court was unmoved.
“Even if Plaintiff’s statutory interpretation were correct (a proposition that we neither consider nor endorse), personal interest in or ownership of a seized document is not synonymous with the need for its return.3 In most search warrants, the government seizes property that unambiguously belongs to the subject of a search. That cannot be enough to support equitable jurisdiction,” the judges said in the ruling.
The ruling rejected Trump’s assertation that documents would be improperly disclosed, saying “any leak of classified material would be properly characterized as a harm to the United States and its citizens — not as a personal injury to Plaintiff.”
Calling Trump’s arguments “a sideshow,” the judges wrote that as of this point, there has been no constitutional violation, adding that “requiring federal courts to oversee routine criminal investigations beyond their constitutionally ascribed role of approving a search warrant based on a showing of probable cause. Our precedents do not allow this, and neither does our constitutional structure.”
The court then attacked the concept that as a former president, Trump should be allotted special consideration.
“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 judges wrote.
“To create a special exception here would defy our Nation’s foundational principle that our law applies ‘to all, without regard to numbers, wealth, or rank,’” they said, citing a 1794 court ruling.
“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,” the judges wrote. “Nor can we write a rule that allows only former presidents to do so.
“Either approach would be a radical reordering of our caselaw limiting the federal courts’ involvement in criminal investigations. And both would violate bedrock separation-of-powers limitations.”