A three-judge panel ruled Wednesday that a special master should not have been appointed to review materials the FBI seized from former President Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate.
The decision allows the Justice Department to resume using those materials as part of its investigation into whether Trump mishandled classified records and obstructed justice.
U.S. District Judge Aileen Cannon had ordered the government not to use the materials while the review took place, limiting for months what evidence the department could access during its investigation.
During brief arguments before the U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta last week, the three judges suggested that Trump and his legal team, in challenging the search warrant executed at his home long before charges had been brought, wanted special treatment that would not have been granted to any other American. They also said that the case did not appear to clear the bar for appointing a special master, a type of independent expert used in some legal cases.
The judges also expressed concern that allowing Judge Cannon’s decision to stand would set a precedent that would allow other people under investigation to ask courts to limit law enforcement’s access to evidence before any indictments have been handed down.
Thursday’s unanimous 21-page ruling says that Cannon abused her discretion to start the process in the first place, and orders her to dismiss the entire case.
“The law is clear. 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,” the ruling states. “Either approach would be a radical reordering of our case law limiting the federal courts’ involvement in criminal investigations. And both would violate bedrock separation-of-powers limitations.”
The three members of the 11th Circuit panel were all appointed by Republicans. Chief Judge William Pryor was appointed by former President George W. Bush. Judges Britt Grant and Andrew Brasher were appointed by Trump.
Trump has the option of attempting to appeal the ruling to the Supreme Court.
Before the ruling, a special master was deep into the process of reviewing more than 22,000 records seized by the FBI during a court-approved Aug. 8 search of Trump’s Florida property. He had asked the Justice Department and Trump’s lawyers to resolve questions over about 900 documents by Thursday.
Trump has claimed that the majority of the disputed documents are personal — not presidential records, which were supposed to be turned over to the National Archives in accordance with the Presidential Records Act. The Justice Department has argued that the materials are still evidence, regardless of whether they are personal or presidential.
The special master’s initial review was expected to end in mid-December.