WASHINGTON — A three-judge panel ruled Wednesday that a special master should not have been appointed to review materials the FBI seized from former President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate, a decision that ends the outside review of thousands of documents that has delayed for months a criminal investigation into the former president’s handling of classified information after leaving office.
The decision allows the Justice Department to resume using those materials as part of its investigation into whether Trump illegally kept classified records after leaving office and obstructed the FBI’s attempts to recover them.
U.S. District Judge Aileen Cannon had ordered the government not to use the materials while the review took place, limiting what evidence the department could access during its investigation.
During brief arguments before the 11th U.S. 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 access to evidence before any indictments had been handed down.
Thursday’s unanimous 21-page ruling says that Cannon never had jurisdiction to approve the special master review or order the government to stop using the documents.
“It is indeed extraordinary for a warrant to be executed at the home of a former president — but not in a way that affects our legal analysis or otherwise gives the judiciary license to interfere in an ongoing investigation,” states the ruling, which orders Cannon to dismiss the 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.
The panel withheld the effect of its opinion for seven days to give Trump time to decide whether to seek a rehearing before the full 11th Circuit bench or to appeal to the Supreme Court.