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Court of Appeals For The Eleventh Circuit Takes Down Judge Cannon's Mar - a - Lago Rulings

Civil Rights Policy Brief #198 | By: Rodney A. Maggay | December 10, 2022

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Appeals court orders end to special master review process in Trump documents case.

Photo taken from: Alon Sky / AFP via Getty Images

Policy Summary

On December 1, 2022 the United States Court of Appeal for the Eleventh Circuit issued its ruling in the case Trump v. United States of America. The case was an appeal from the United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida and is popularly known as the Mar – a – Lago documents case.

The case stemmed out of the efforts of the National Archives and Records Administration’s (NARA) efforts to retrieve sensitive classified information from President Donald Trump after his presidential term came to an end in 2021. It was believed that these documents were at President Trump’s personal residence in Mar – a – Lago, Florida. After months of negotiations and requests for extensions for return of the documents by President Trump, the FBI executed a search warrant at Trump’s home in August 2022. The search resulted in the recovery of 22,000+ documents including over one hundred documents labeled confidential, secret or top secret.

Subsequently, Trump brought a lawsuit in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida asking for judicial oversight of the search as well as for additional relief including the appointment of a special master to review the documents seized. In a series of questionable rulings, the district court allowed the appointment of a Special Master to review the documents seized and prohibited the government from reviewing the documents. The government appealed those orders, which temporarily stayed the orders from going into effect. Finally, the appeals court ruled on the merits of the appeal and ruled unanimously 3 – 0 that the district court could not block the U.S. from using lawfully seized records in a criminal investigation. LEARN MORE

Policy Analysis

While the government search at Mar – a – Lago generated alot of sensational news – search of a former President’s residence, classified documents containing nuclear information and a special master appointed to review the seized materials – the appeals court issued a rather ordinary, but still important ruling. The appeals court did not need to thoroughly address the most newsworthy aspects of the case but instead issued a ruling on a procedural element of the case. The case came down to whether the federal district court had jurisdiction to hear the case.

The appeals court applied the four factors of a test from the case Richey v. Smith. That case only allows a district court to hear a suit concerning the seizure of personal property if 1] the government had a “callous disregard” for a plaintiff’s constitutional rights, 2] whether the plaintiff has an individual interest and need for the return of his personal property, 3] whether the plaintiff would suffer an irreparable injury if he is denied the return of his property, and 4] whether there is an adequate remedy at law for the plaintiff. 

The court ruled against the President in all four of the factors in its examination of the facts of the case. The appeals court ruled that the government did not have a “callous disregard” for President Trump’s constitutional rights because it followed appropriate procedures when issuing subpoenas and the search warrant. And it continued that President Trump did not have an interest in government records and that the President could not suffer a personal harm because the records are government records.

Any injury suffered by their exposure would be an injury to the U.S. and not Trump personally. Finally, the court said that the fourth factor under Richey of the availability of an adequate legal remedy was under federal criminal court rules. 

This would then have barred his case in the civil proceeding. Trump could not force his case to be heard in a civil court because he was challenging the seizure of the docs under a criminal search warrant. His legal remedy was in a criminal proceeding. (President Trump even cited Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure 41(g) in one of his court filings.) 


Prosecutors had been using records obtained from former President Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate as part of a criminal investigation into alleged retention of national security information, theft of government records and obstruction of justice.

Photo taken from: Evan Vucci / AP Photo

(click or tap to enlargen)

In reality, there has been no constitutional violation (there was a properly issued search warrant) so there is no need to complain there is no adequate remedy available to Trump. In sum, the appeals court ruled the federal district court presided by Judge Aileen Cannon had no jurisdiction or legal authority to hear Trump’s case as a civil proceeding.

The court’s ruling raises the question as to why Judge Aileen Cannon made such head scratching rulings. The appointment of a Special Master to review the documents was unprecedented as were certain conclusions reached by Judge Cannon. 

It appeared that the Judge went out of her way to make rulings unsupported by law to favor the former President. She was an appointee of President Trump, which raised questions as to whether Judge Cannon could be unbiased when hearing the case. The appeals court even at times hinted that Judge Cannon was introducing and adopting legal positions that the President or his lawyers were not making or introducing in court. It is uncertain if Judge Cannon was intentionally trying to help Trump out in the case but the appeals court here saved the day with their precise and well – supported legal analysis.

 

The appeals court saw through Judge Cannon’s flimsy reasoning and helped bring an end to the likely delay tactics that Trump was using and which Judge Cannon may have been encouraging. With President Trump’s decision to not appeal the appeals court ruling, the government can now continue with its review of the seized classified documents and determine on the merits and under the law whether Trump should be held accountable for how he handled sensitive classified documents. LEARN MORELEARN MORELEARN MORE.

This brief was compiled by Rod Maggay. If you have comments or want to add the name of your organization to this brief, please contact rodwood@email.com.

Engagement Resources​

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LawFare – article discussing whether charges should be brought in Mar – a – Lago documents case.

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