Is Judge Cannon Tilting The Classified Documents Case In Trump’s Favor?

Civil Rights Policy Brief #222 | By: Rodney A. Maggay | April 05, 2024

Featured Photo by Indy Silva for US Renew Democracy News, 2024

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The Honorable Aileen Cannon is a federal district judge for the United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida who was appointed to the bench by President Trump in 2020. The jurisdiction of the court covers nine counties in Southern Florida including Broward, Miami – Dade and West Palm Beach. Cases that are appealed are heard in the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit.

Judge Cannon has been the presiding judge in two cases involving former President Donald Trump. She presided over the civil case Trump v. United States (2022), which was the case where President Trump challenged the FBI search of his Mar – a – Lago residence in August 2022. And in 2023 Judge Cannon was assigned the criminal case United States v. Trump which was about the former President’s mis – handling of sensitive national defense documents. Judge Cannon has been accused of issuing orders that mischaracterize the law and the facts of the case in order to give the former President an unfair advantage in both court cases.

On December 1, 2022, the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit ordered Judge Cannon to dismiss the civil case brought by the former President. The court reasoned that Judge Cannon improperly exercised jurisdiction by hearing the case and that the Judge even improperly raised legal positions that the President’s lawyers did not mention.

In 2023, Judge Cannon issued a number of orders that inexplicably created a delay in the criminal case. Special Prosecutor Jack Smith and his team have pushed for a trial schedule but have instead seen Judge Cannon take more than a month to grant a hearing on the trial schedule issue and suspend the deadlines for motions related to the use of classified information in the case. When the prosecutors requested a December 18, 2023 deadline for a response to a motion from the former President’s legal team, Judge Cannon inexplicably denied the special prosecutor’s request even though the defense attorneys had not even responded yet.

Recently, Judge Cannon issued an order regarding jury instructions in the case that was considered premature since a jury had not even been impaneled yet. (Jury instructions are only requested when a jury is selected, as a jury may not even be needed due to a case settling or being dismissed). Her order requested two sets of jury instructions that rest on an inaccurate reading of two statutes at issue in the case – the Presidential Records Act and the Espionage Act.

Due to these orders and scheduling delays imposed by Judge Cannon on the case, it is being discussed whether Judge Cannon is intentionally trying to help the former President by delaying the trial or even tilting it in Mr. Trump’s favor. LEARN MORE, LEARN MORE

Policy Analysis

Judges are ordinarily given a reasonable amount of discretion as to how to manage cases, especially when it comes to scheduling a trial and scheduling deadlines for when motions must be filed. They are constrained in their actions and what they can rule on by the law – the statutes and case law – which often provides a general framework as how a trial will generally proceed. What has made discussion around Judge Cannon’s handling of the two Trump cases that have appeared in her courtroom significant is that her orders are orders that should never have been made in these kinds of cases, according to national defense attorneys who are familiar with these specialized cases. It is highly unlikely that any other judge in the U.S. would have disregarded established law or taken an inordinate amount of time to issue an order as Judge Cannon has. Because of her actions, it has become a talking point among the public if Judge Cannon is trying to intentionally delay Trump’s criminal trial until after the November 2024 election.

What is notable about Judge Cannon’s actions in the case is that she is taking longer than necessary to issue rulings. One theory about this is that her deliberate slow pace might be a tactic to prevent the Special Prosecutor’s team from appealing her order and ruling, thus delaying the case even further. If there is no ruling on an important issue, then there is no legal basis to make an appeal yet. Judge Cannon had been forcefully overruled in the prior Trump civil case that she presided over and she may be hesitant to issue a ruling now that could be overruled again. Additionally, an appeal could also start the process of having her forcefully removed from the case, which could be something she would want to avoid.

Even with all of those lingering questions, Judge Cannon issued another order, which raised the question whether she was competent to oversee the case. Judge Cannon requested two sets of jury instructions from the parties. That was an odd request in and of itself since it was premature to request jury instructions when a jury had not even been seated yet. But what made her request even more bizarre was when she asked for instructions as to whether, under the Presidential Records Act, the classified documents at issue are “personal” or “presidential.” This is completely irrelevant as that statute only lists how documents are classified and has no bearing on Trump’s hoarding of documents. By mentioning it in her courtroom, Judge Cannon is trying to make it an issue when it has no connection to Trump’s criminal trial. But if her request for these bizarre jury instructions proceed, it could distort the trial and make the trial about the minor issue of how presidential documents are categorized instead of what is really the heart of the case – whether Trump violated the law by willfully retaining sensitive national security documents that he should have never have kept after his presidency ended. Trials are events that are specifically focused on a set of issues and not a place to inject irrelevant discussions on issues that are minor at best, like how documents are categorized. For Judge Cannon to focus on these trivial issues for trial plays into Trump’s hand to delay and obfuscate what the case is really about.

The case is still ongoing with many potential avenues to go down but Judge Cannon’s actions in the case deserve close scrutiny as the case proceeds. LEARN MORE, LEARN MORE

Engagement Resources
  • The Hill – article on Florida procedures and how Judge Cannon was assigned the Trump classified documents case.
  • United States Courts – infopage on how to file a judicial complaint against a judge.

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.

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