A three-judge panel of the 11th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals unanimously sided with the Justice Department on Wednesday in its fight with former President Donald Trump over access to about 100 classified documents the FBI took from Trump's Mar-a-Lago club in a court-approved Aug. 8 search.
The appellate court, overruling U.S. District Judge Aileen Cannon, decided that the Justice Department can use those documents in its criminal investigation of Trump's document handling, and shield them from Trump's lawyers and the special counsel Cannon appointed to review the larger poll of 11,000 seized documents.
Trump's legal team did not immediately say if they will appeal the ruling to the Supreme Court. Typically, plaintiffs can ask an entire circuit court to re-hear an appeal en banc, but the 11th Circuit appears not to allow that.
The three-judge panel, which includes two Trump appointees, handed down "a start repudiation" of Trump's legal arguments, The Associated Press reports, and "was unsparing toward Cannon," Politico adds. The appellate ruling has "a matter-of-fact tone to it," but reading it is "like waking from a nightmare" after Cannon's "truly heart-stoppingly bad set of opinions," former federal prosecutor Harry Litman told MSNBC. For Trump, "this is the worst day he's ever had, legally."
The appellate court shot down Cannon's various justifications for blocking the Justice Department from using the classified documents — including that Trump, as a former president, was entitled to special treatment; and that the government was wrong about the national security threat from her ruling.
"It is self-evident that the public has a strong interest in ensuring that the storage of the classified records did not result in 'exceptionally grave damage to the national security,'" the judges wrote, and ascertaining that "necessarily involves reviewing the documents, determining who had access to them and when, and deciding which (if any) sources or methods are compromised." The lower court "abused its discretion in exercising jurisdiction" over the classified documents, the panel added.
The ruling amounts to a rare judicial "benchslap," "litigation disaster tour guide" Akiva Cohen assessed. The Justice Department can appeal the rest of Cannon's ruling, but this decision means "everything that happens in front of Cannon from here on out is irrelevant," because the DOJ can use the documents in the meantime and "nobody really cares about the special master's review of anything but the classified documents."