Updated Mar 14, 2024 - Politics & Policy

What to know about Aileen Cannon, the judge in Trump's classified docs case

Federal courthouse building where Trump classified documents case hearing is happening.

The Alto Lee Adams Sr. U.S. Courthouse in Fort Pierce, Florida. Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

U.S. District Judge Aileen Cannon on Thursday is weighing whether to dismiss former President Trump's classified documents case.

Why it matters: Cannon, who was nominated to the federal bench by Trump in 2020, is considering whether the presumptive GOP presidential nominee was allowed to keep the records at the heart of the historic 40-count federal indictment after leaving the White House.

  • Trump is attending Thursday's hearing in person. Cannon's ruling will determine if Special Counsel Jack Smith's case against the former president proceeds to trial or founders before reaching a jury.
  • The case, which Trump pleaded not guilty in, is one of four criminal proceedings he is facing.
  • A dismissal could be appealed to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, which has overturned previous rulings by Cannon.

State of play: Trump's lawyers' claims are in part based on interpretations of the Presidential Records Act. They are also based on readings of the Espionage Act, which Trump's lawyers argue has been misapplied in the case.

  • Trump's team in a filing last month argued that he had "virtually unreviewable" executive authority to designate presidential documents as personal under the law.
  • Smith's office countered in a court filing responding to the claims: The Presidential Records Act "does not exempt Trump from the criminal law, entitle him to unilaterally declare highly classified presidential records to be personal records, or shield him from criminal investigations — let alone allow him to obstruct a federal investigation with impunity."

Earlier this week, a former Mar-a-Lago employee told CNN he had "no clue" that boxes he helped move at Trump's estate potentially contained classified documents.

  • The ex-employee, Brian Butler, is a key witness in the case and is referred to in court filings as "employee 5," CNN reported.
  • "I think the American people have the right to know the facts, that this is not a witch hunt," Butler said.

Flashback: Longtime Trump aide Walt Nauta and Mar-a-Lago maintenance supervisor Carlos De Oliveira are also charged in special counsel Jack Smith's Florida case. They have pleaded not guilty.

Cannon's background

Cannon, born in Colombia and raised in Miami, Florida, received her bachelor’s degree from Duke University and graduated from the University of Michigan Law School.

  • She clerked for conservative Judge Steven M. Colloton of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit before joining law firm Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher.
  • From 2013 to 2020, she worked as an assistant U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Florida in the major crimes and appellate divisions, she said in her Senate questionnaire for judicial nominees.
  • In 2019, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio’s office reached out to her, saying the GOP senator "wanted to consider [her] for a judicial vacancy in the Southern District of Florida," Cannon said. She was confirmed the following year.

Of note: Cannon listed herself as a longtime member of the Federalist Society, first joining the conservative legal group in 2005.

Cannon's rulings in classified docs case

Cannon previously ruled in Trump's favor when he requested a special master to review evidence seized by the FBI in the search of his Mar-a-Lago residence.

  • The move essentially halted federal prosecutors' investigation into his alleged mishandling of the classified documents, until an appeals court ruled to scrap the special master, saying "the district court improperly exercised equitable jurisdiction."
  • The appeals court wrote in its decision that writing a rule to allow subjects of search warrants — including former presidents — to block government investigations "would be a radical reordering of our caselaw" and "would violate bedrock separation-of-powers limitations."
  • "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,'" the appeals court stated in its ruling.
  • Cannon had also denied the DOJ's request to exclude classified documents from the special master review.
  • But the 11th Circuit sided with the DOJ when it granted the department's request to resume reviewing classified documents from Mar-a-Lago as part of the investigation.

Editor's note: This story was updated with additional developments in the case.

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