The appeals court ruling throwing out the special master process that had been put in place for the Mar-a-Lago search was a major rebuke of former President Donald Trump’s arguments for why the materials seized from his home should be subject to outside review.
The 11th US Circuit Court of Appeals made clear Thursday that it did not approve of a federal judge getting involved in the first place after Trump originally sued over the search.
The Justice Department has not been able to use in its criminal probe the bulk of the hundreds of documents it obtained in the search while the special master – senior Judge Raymond Dearie, of Brooklyn’s federal court – does his review. He was appointed by US District Judge Aileen Cannon, a Trump appointee in Florida who was instructed by the appeals court Thursday to dismiss the case.
The opinion was handed down in the dispute over the FBI’s search of Trump’s Florida residence and resort, which was executed in August as part of a criminal investigation into whether documents from his White House were mishandled.
Here’s what to know about the 11th Circuit ruling:
The appeals court said that, by demanding a special master, Trump was asking the courts to either give him special treatment because he was former president or to drastically expand when subjects of an DOJ search can seek such judicial intervention.
On the former point, the court made clear that former presidents deserve no special consideration because of their status, in a shot at how Cannon alluded to those concerns in her order requiring the review.
“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 court said.
The appeals court was critical of how Cannon inserted herself into the Justice Department investigation. The 11th Circuit said courts can only intervene at this stage of a criminal probe if there was a finding that a search subject’s constitutional rights had been violated.
“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.
There are three other conditions that must be met for a court to interfere in a criminal investigation the way that Cannon did, the appeals court wrote, and none of them had been met in the lawsuit brought by Trump seeking the special master.
“There is no record evidence that the government exceeded the scope of the warrant—which, it bears repeating, was authorized by a magistrate judge’s finding of probable cause,” the court wrote. “And yet again, Plaintiff’s argument would apply universally; presumably any subject of a search warrant would like all of his property back before the government has a chance to use it.”
The appeals court called out Trump’s shifting arguments for why the appointment of a special master was justified. Trump had not shown that he needed the materials that the FBI had seized, the appeals court said. The 11th Circuit noted that the passports – the main example Trump gave for why the FBI had obtained things that it should be given back to him immediately – had already been returned to him. The 11th Circuit said that Trump’s focus on whether the materials seized at Mar-a-Lago were his personal possessions – rather than government records – was besides the point.
“During discussion of this factor at oral argument, Plaintiff’s counsel noted that the seized items included ‘golf shirts’ and ‘pictures of Celine Dion,’” the appeals court said. “The government concedes that Plaintiff ‘may have a property interest in his personal effects.’ While Plaintiff may have an interest in these items and others like them, we do not see the need for their immediate return after seizure under a presumptively lawful search warrant.”
The ruling will not go into effect for seven days, giving Trump time to seek an order to pause it while he appeals it. That is a shorter deadline than the timeline that appellate rulings usually going into effect, in a sign that the appeals court does not want the proceedings to drag out longer than they have to.
The appeals court previously sped up the schedule for hearing DOJ’s appeal. And it’s 21-page opinion was turned around just nine days after the 11th Circuit panel held oral arguments.
Trump’s lawyers are weighing whether to take the case to the Supreme Court. They also have the option of asking the full slate of 11th Circuit judges to review the ruling. But the fact that Trump lost with a panel of conservative, GOP appointed judges – two of them appointed by Trump himself and the third, Judge William Pryor, the chief judge of the circuit – does not suggest that this would be a promising avenue for the former president.
If Trump decides to go to the Supreme Court with this case, it will be after a losing streak where the high court refused in other instances to intervene on his behalf.
The Supreme Court previously declined to get involved in an earlier stage of the fight over the Mar-a-Lago special master. Trump’s legal team had raised technical issues with how the 11th Circuit handled excluding documents marked as classified from the review.
The Supreme Court also recently rejected Trump’s bid to block the IRS from providing a House committee access to his tax returns, and earlier this year, the justices would not stop the National Archives from producing to House January 6 investigators records from his White House.
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