An appeals court on Thursday ruled that the appointment of a special master after the search of former President Trump’s Florida home was improper, determining that a lower court could not limit the Justice Department investigation into the mishandling of White House records at Mar-a-Lago.
“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,” a three-judge panel wrote for the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals.
“Either approach would be a reordering of our case law limiting the federal courts’ involvement in criminal investigations.”
The ruling paves the way for the release of some 22,000 pages of government documents stored at Trump’s Florida home to Department of Justice (DOJ) investigators, potentially speeding any eventual prosecutions from a case assigned to a newly appointed special counsel.
It’s also a major loss for Trump, who sought to challenge the approval of a warrant to search his home. In the warrant affidavit, the government said they had probable cause to believe the documents’ removal could violate the Espionage Act.
The ruling, authored by two Trump appointees as well as a George W. Bush appointee, said the pleas by Trump’s attorneys to keep the special master process would represent “a dramatic and unwarranted” use of the court’s authority.
Trump’s attorneys failed to meet multiple tests required to show that the government abused its authority by searching his home. The court rejected the former president’s claims to the documents as he argues they could be protected by personal or executive privilege.
“As we have said, the status of a document as personal or presidential does not alter the authority of the government to seize it under a warrant supported by probable cause,” the judges wrote, noting that judicial intervention is normally sought when the seized items “unambiguously belongs to the subject of a search.”
They also dismissed arguments from Trump’s team that the government should have to show a need for the documents.
“Plaintiff attempts — as he did in the district court — to reverse the standard, arguing that the government does not need the non-classified documents for its investigation. This is not self-evident, but it would be irrelevant in any event. Plaintiff’s task was to show why he needed the documents, not why the government did not. He has failed to meet his burden,” they wrote.
The ruling unwinds a special master process ongoing since mid-September and that Trump had been ordered to pay for. Hours before the ruling, lawyers for Trump and the government filed a joint briefing reviewing the disputes over the remaining documents in the tranche.
The 11th Circuit ruling came just over a week after expedited arguments were presented in the case.
A different panel of the court had previously sided with the Justice Department in an earlier battle, blocking a portion of the ruling Florida-based federal district court Judge Aileen Cannon which initially withheld some 100 documents with classified markings from DOJ.
The latest ruling was again stern towards Cannon, another Trump appointee, writing that federal courts should intervene in investigations “only the narrowest of circumstances.”
It noted that in an instance where Trump’s team had offered a weak argument, “the district court stepped in with its own reasoning.”
Attorney General Merrick Garland last month appointed a special counsel, longtime prosecutor Jack Smith, to oversee the Justice Department’s investigations into Mar-a-Lago as well as efforts to block the transfer of power to President Biden.
Justice Department lawyers contended it was necessary to recover the outstanding documents, arguing that all presidential records must be maintained by the government through the National Archives.
But the evidence could also help bolster a case related to the classified records seized during the search, helping to demonstrate how they were kept, where they were stored and when they may have been accessed.
In addition to possible Espionage Act violations, the warrant noted that their removal may have violated laws prohibiting the concealment of government records.
Updated at 7:11 p.m.