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Appeals court: Trump merits no 'special master' for seized files nor 'special exception' to criminal law

A three-judge panel of the U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled unanimously Thursday that a federal judge in Florida erred in granting former President Donald Trump's request for a "special master" to review the thousands of documents the FBI took from Trump's Mar-a-Lago club in an August raid. The unsparing ruling was a victory for the Justice Department, a big defeat for Trump, and an embarrassing rebuke of Judge Aileen Cannon, the Trump appointee who approved Trump's request and appointed the special master.

The appellate judges — all appointed by Republican presidents, and two by Trump himself — gave Trump seven days to appeal. If the Supreme Court declines to stay the ruling, the Justice Department will get back unfettered access to all the seized documents next Thursday. That would also abruptly halt the work of the special master, Judge Raymond Dearie, who, while skeptical of Trump's claims, "has been hard at work in the case," Politico reports.  

The appellate court's decision centers on its view that Judge Cannon had wrongly claimed jurisdiction in the case. But the judges also rejected each argument from Trump and his attorneys for why the former president deserved a special master, or any special carve-out. 

"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," the judges wrote. "Nor can we write a rule that allows only former presidents to do so." Creating "a special exception here would defy our nation's foundational principle that our law applies 'to all, without regard to numbers, wealth, or rank,'" they added later.

The judges at times "seemed to mock arguments put forward by Trump's attorneys," Politico noted, as when they agreed Trump may want prosecutors to return his "golf shirts" and "pictures of Celine Dion," but said "we do not see the need for their immediate return after seizure under a presumptively lawful search warrant."

In considering the Trump team's arguments, the judges concluded, "we are faced with a choice: apply our usual test; drastically expand the availability of equitable jurisdiction for every subject of a search warrant; or carve out an unprecedented exception in our law for former presidents. We choose the first option. So the case must be dismissed."

Regaining access to all the seized files should help federal investigators, now working under Special Counsel Jack Smith, accelerate their criminal investigation of Trump's retention of highly classified documents and potential theft of government records and obstruction of justice.