Civil Procedure

Judge didn't have jurisdiction to appoint special master in Trump documents case, 11th Circuit says

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Classified documents seized from Mar-a-Lago

A photo of documents from former President Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago home in Palm Beach, Florida, submitted as evidence by the Department of Justice in federal court in Florida. Image from the Department of Justice.

U.S. District Judge Aileen M. Cannon of the Southern District of Florida didn’t have jurisdiction to consider former President Donald Trump’s request for a special master to review documents seized from his Mar-a-Lago home in Palm Beach, Florida, a federal appeals court has ruled.

The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals at Atlanta ruled against Trump on Thursday and tossed his lawsuit. The per curiam opinion also vacated Cannon’s appointment of a special master and her ban on government use of the seized documents until the special master review is complete.

The 11th Circuit said it had three choices: to apply its usual four-factor test to determine jurisdiction, to “drastically expand” the availability of equitable jurisdiction in search-warrant cases, or to “carve out an unprecedented exception in our law for former presidents.” The court said it chose the first option.

The four-factor test considers whether the government displayed a callous disregard for the plaintiff’s constitutional rights, whether the plaintiff has an individual interest in and need for the seized items, whether the plaintiff would be irreparably injured if the property isn’t returned, and whether the plaintiff can redress his grievance with an adequate remedy at law.

None of the factors favors Trump, the appeals court said.

The arguments in the brief for Trump, if consistently applied, would allow any subject of a search warrant to invoke a federal court’s equitable jurisdiction, the 11th Circuit said.

“The law is clear,” the appeals court said. “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.”

The authors of the 11th Circuit opinion were Chief Judge William H. Pryor Jr., Judge Andrew L. Brasher and Judge Britt C. Grant. Brasher and Grant are appointees of Trump. Pryor is an appointee of former President George W. Bush.

The 11th Circuit had previously granted a stay that allowed the government to use seized classified documents in its criminal investigation and to withhold them from the special master.

Veteran prosecutor Jack Smith has been appointed as special counsel to oversee the investigation of the handling of classified documents found at Mar-a-Lago. Smith is also investigating whether any entity or person unlawfully interfered with the transfer of power or the certification of votes in connection with the 2020 presidential election.

Hat tip to the Washington Post, Politico, the New York Times and, which had coverage of the 11th Circuit’s opinion.

See also: “After Trump makes claims about planted and declassified documents, special master seeks specifics” “Trump doesn’t have to detail claims about planted documents to special master, judge says” “Unclean hands and executive-privilege scope debated after judge requires special master in Trump case” “Will Trump be indicted in Mar-a-Lago documents case? His lawyers see possibility, object to special master request” “Who filed phony document in Trump Mar-a-Lago search case?” “Trump requests special master for review of documents seized by FBI” “DOJ files motion to unseal warrant, property receipt relating to search of Trump’s home” “Trump search-warrant affidavit, released on judge’s orders, cites sensitive documents, possible obstruction” “Meet Raymond Dearie, the judge picked to oversee Mar-a-Lago documents review” “Judge who signed Trump search warrant is targeted; critics seek ‘judgment of God’” “Could Trump be banned from office if he’s convicted of taking government documents?”

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