Updated Dec 1, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Appeals court halts special master review of Mar-a-Lago documents

Former US President Donald Trump speaks at the Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach, Florida, US, on Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2022

Former President Trump speaks at Mar-a-Lago on Nov. 15. Photo: Eva Marie Uzcategui/Bloomberg via Getty Images

An appeals court on Thursday ruled to scrap the appointment of a special master to review documents seized from former President Trump's Mar-a-Lago residence.

Why it matters: It's a major defeat for Trump and a victory for the Department of Justice, which has pushed to end the third-party review. The decision allows the DOJ to continue its probe into the former president's handling of classified documents.

What they’re saying: "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 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 caselaw limiting the federal courts’ involvement in criminal investigations. And both would violate bedrock separation-of-powers limitations.”
  • “Accordingly, we agree with the government that the district court improperly exercised equitable jurisdiction, and that dismissal of the entire proceeding is required,” it continued.
  • "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.'"

How it happened: The ruling comes after a three-member panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit last week seemed inclined to grant the DOJ's appeal of the special master's appointment during oral arguments.

  • The DOJ argued that a federal judge "erred in ordering a special-master review for claims of executive and attorney-client privilege and enjoining the government’s use of the seized records in the meantime."
  • Trump sought the special master, arguing that some of the records may be protected by attorney-client privilege or executive privilege.

The big picture: District Court Judge Aileen Cannon, a Trump appointee, had granted his request and appointed former New York federal judge Raymond Dearie as special master after Trump's team proposed him as a candidate and the DOJ agreed.

Worth noting: The three-panel judge includes the circuit’s chief judge, Bush-appointed William Pryor, and two judges appointed by Trump.

State of play: The DOJ has appointed Jack Smith to oversee federal criminal investigations into Trump's handling of classified documents and efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 election.

Editor's note: This story has been updated with additional background and reporting.

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