A federal appeals court on Thursday overturned U.S. District Judge Aileen Cannon's order appointing a special master to review secret government documents seized from former President Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago residence.
A three-member panel on the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta, which included two judges appointed by Trump, issued a 21-page opinion blasting the decision by Cannon, another Trump appointee, to block the FBI from using thousands of documents until they are reviewed by a special master. The unanimous ruling said Cannon never had jurisdiction to order the review or to prohibit the FBI from using documents seized from Mar-a-Lago in its criminal investigation. The court also rejected the idea that Trump should be treated differently than any other target of a search warrant.
"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 ruling said. "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,'" it continued.
Cannon's special master order riled legal experts, who noted that there is no precedent for a former president to invoke executive privilege after leaving office and to prevent the Justice Department, another part of the executive branch, from viewing executive branch documents.
"The law is clear," the judges added. "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."
Former U.S. Attorney Joyce White Vance called the ruling a "bench slap" of Cannon's decision to "interfere" with the criminal investigation.
"In a rather painful dismantling of Cannon and Trump's lawyers, the Court points out that they read the law wrong, badly wrong, in an effort to serve Trump," she wrote on Substack. "In fact, the Court notes that even Trump's lawyers don't use the badly wrong theory Judge Cannon used to decide she had jurisdiction over the matter."
"This is a smackdown," Palm Beach County Attorney Dave Aronberg told MSNBC. "It says that Judge Cannon should never have exercised jurisdiction over this matter. Remember, Judge Cannon is in a county, two counties away, 68 miles from West Palm Beach. She inserted herself into this case when it was in the hands of Magistrate Judge Bruce Reinhardt. That's what Trump's team wanted. She took jurisdiction and then she gave them everything they wanted."
Other legal experts agreed that the ruling was a strong repudiation of Cannon, who was appointed to the bench in 2020.
"To say that the court of appeals today completely eviscerated Judge Cannon's ruling and Trump's arguments is an understatement," wrote conservative attorney George Conway, a frequent Trump critic.
"The Circuit Court's stinging rebuke of the loose Cannon means she has fully earned that title," Harvard Law Prof. Laurence Tribe wrote on Post.
"This Eleventh Circuit ruling is just dripping with venom for how stupid Judge Cannon's ruling was and it's beautiful," tweeted attorney Ken White.
"It is a complete takedown. Eviscerates the garbage fire arguments put forward by Trump's legal team and the clearly erroneous judicial analysis by Judge Cannon," agreed national security attorney Bradley Moss. "Trump did get one thing out of this: delay. Three months of it."
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The 11th Circuit panel also took issue with Trump's arguments that he needs to protect documents that he designated as personal property, noting that the status of the document is irrelevant to whether the government can seize it during a legally authorized search.
"All these arguments are a sideshow," the ruling said, adding that Trump did not show that his rights had been violated in the search. "If there has been no constitutional violation—much less a serious one—then there is no harm to be remediated in the first place," the judges wrote.
"The 11th Circuit's ruling isn't just a stinging rebuke of Judge Cannon's special master order," wrote Norm Eisen, who served as Democratic counsel during Trump's first impeachment. "It's also a rebuke of Trump & his lawyers."
Trump could still appeal the ruling to the Supreme Court, which already rejected his bid to overturn another 11th Circuit ruling knocking down part of Cannon's order that prevented the FBI from using about 100 documents marked classified.
"Trump can appeal this to SCOTUS, but I see about a 0% chance of even *this* court taking it up," tweeted Steve Vladeck, a Supreme Court expert at the University of Texas School of Law.
"This Trump maneuver backfired spectacularly," added former acting Solicitor General Neal Katyal. "Like all he touches."
Read the full 21-page ruling below:
about Judge Aileen Cannon