The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals on Thursday ordered the dismissal of former President Trump’s civil lawsuit challenging the seizure of government records at Mar-a-Lago.
The much-anticipated decision by the appeals court fully repudiated the district court’s controversial early decisions in the case and effectively ended the use of a special master to review documents in the case.
The unanimous decision of the three-judge panel, which included the chief judge of the circuit, clears the way for the Justice Department to resume its investigation into Trump’s handling of government documents, including materials classified at the highest levels. The district court’s actions had stymied that investigation.
The court eviscerated U.S. District Judge Aileen Cannon’s reasoning throughout the ruling, and included snide asides that dismissed her decision-making as not only wrong, but dangerous.
The appeals court decision was a vindication for the rule of law, and singled out for particular scorn the notion of special treatment for former presidents.
The court said that the case asked them to either “apply our usual test” or “carve out an unprecedented exception in our law for former presidents.”
“We choose the first option,” the decision reads.
The court found that Cannon abused her discretion by agreeing to entertain the civil case that Trump brought seeking to halt a criminal investigation, and that she erred in installing a special master.
Throughout the ruling, the 11th Circuit suggests that Cannon, in siding with Trump, risked creating an entirely new standard that, if repeated, would undermine criminal investigations across the country.
Moreover, the court dismissed Trump’s arguments for why Cannon should be involved in the first place — that the searches unjustly harmed him — as a “sideshow.”
“The real question that guides our analysis is this—adequate remedy for what?” the opinion reads. ”If there has been no constitutional violation—much less a serious one—then there is no harm to be remediated in the first place.”
In halting the investigation and creating the special master, Cannon repeatedly did Trump’s work for him.
When his lawyers failed to specify what harm the DOJ holding on to his records would cause him, the 11th Circuit noted, Cannon “stepped in with [her] own reasoning.”
That led Trump to later “adop[t] two of the district court’s own arguments,” the ruling added.
One argument that Trump adopted from Cannon had to do with classified material that he allegedly took. Trump wrote – and Cannon repeatedly suggested – that the DOJ might leak the records to the public, thereby harming him.
But the 11th Circuit struck there at a distinction that Trump almost never makes – between himself and anyone around him.
“What’s more, any leak of classified material would be properly characterized as a harm to the United States and its citizens—not as a personal injury to Plaintiff,” the ruling reads.
At other moments, the appeals court suggests that Cannon’s ruling was unnecessary and potentially destructive.
“This restraint guards against needless judicial intrusion into the course of criminal investigations—a sphere of power committed to the executive branch,” the ruling noted at one point.
“The law is clear,” the 11th Circuit concluded. “We cannot write a rule that allows any
subject of a search warrant to block government investigations after the execution of the warrant.”
But what runs through the ruling most of all is the overriding sense among the judges — mirrored by commentators, the DOJ’s court filings, and the legal community at large — that Cannon’s most serious error was to create a double standard of justice: one for a former President, and one for everyone else.
It’s a point that Cannon herself made in an early ruling in the case, saying that because Trump was a former president, “the stigma associated with the subject seizure is in a league of its own.”
The 11th Circuit dispensed with that argument as contrary to American principles.
“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,” the ruling reads.
“To create a special exception here would defy our Nation’s foundational principle that our law applies “to all, without regard to numbers, wealth, or rank,” the court concluded.
A panel of three appellate judges – Chief judge William Pryor, and Trump appointees judges Andrew Brasher and Britt Grand – heard arguments in the case last week.
Oral arguments went poorly for Trump.
Pryor himself outlined what he called the “extraordinary nature” of the case: “An injunction against the Executive Branch in a pre-indictment situation.”
“Under the separation of powers, the judiciary doesn’t interfere with those kinds of prosecutorial and investigatorial decisions,” he added.
The case landed at the 11th Circuit after an improbable series of events that only Trump could have put into motion.
The FBI seized reams of government documents, some of them highly classified, from Mar-a-Lago in August, after Trump spent more than a year stalling in the face of requests from the feds to return records that he took from the White House after leaving office.
After the searches, Trump pulled one of his standard moves: filing a long-shot, bombastic lawsuit that sought an unprecedented outcome.
To virtually everyone’s shock, Trump initially prevailed, as U.S. District Judge Aileen Cannon for the Southern District of Florida took the extraordinary move of intervening in the DOJ’s investigation. She ordered that the government stop using materials it seized from Mar-a-Lago for its investigation and installed a special master to sift through what records Trump could get back.
The DOJ appealed this immediately to the Eleventh Circuit, winning a reprieve of Cannon’s order as it applied to classified records. Federal prosecutors then filed a broader appeal, asking the 11th Circuit to throw out Canon’s ruling in its entirety.
The ruling came down minutes after Trump made one last request in a filing before the special master: that he be allowed to argue that Dearie not consult with the National Archives.
Dearie did not have time to address the request.
Read the ruling here: