Who is Aileen Cannon, the judge in Trump's documents case?

Her national profile saw a huge boost after she OK'd the former president's request for a special master last year

Aileen Cannon.
(Image credit: Illustrated / AP Photo / Southern District of Florida)

When the FBI first uncovered a host of classified materials at Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago residence last summer, it was Judge Aileen Cannon, a Trump appointee, who OK'd the appointment of a "special master," or an independent arbiter tasked with reviewing the seized materials. Now, almost a year later, Cannon has been once again tapped to preside over proceedings in the debacle, which has since escalated into a federal indictment of Trump over alleged violations of the Espionage Act and obstruction of justice, among other charges.

But Cannon's appointment could serve as a silver lining for the former president, who seemed to "win the judicial lottery" when the Southern District of Florida's random "computerized assignment system" assigned him a judge whose previous "pro-Trump" rulings were described by legal experts as "audacious and even lawless," Politico reported. Now, she "will be in an even more powerful position to steer Trump's legal fortunes."

Getting started

Cannon, 41, had "relatively little experience as a lawyer" and almost no public profile when nominated by Trump and then confirmed by the Senate in November of 2020, The Guardian reported. Having graduated from the University of Michigan Law School in 2007, her appointment to "the federal bench came only 12 years after she was first admitted to practice law, the minimum experience the American Bar Association requires nominees should have." Before that, from 2013 to 2020, she served as a federal prosecutor in Fort Pierce, Florida, where she "handled major crimes, including drug, firearm and immigration cases," per The Washington Post.

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On the bench, however, she has overseen just "four relatively routine criminal trials," Politico stated in June, a "stark contrast" to the "historic and complex proceedings" she's about to undertake with Trump. Her limited criminal experience pertains almost exclusively to cases regarding the distribution of controlled substances, "illegal reentry of people who had previously been deported, felons in possession of firearms, and child pornography or trafficking." Almost every one of these cases has resulted in a plea deal, and those that didn't "lasted no more than three days apiece in court."

As for her legislative ethos, Cannon has been described as "thorough, meticulous and often willing to rule against the government," The New York Times reported last year, per defense lawyer Valentin Rodriguez Jr. "The general feeling that I've gotten from her is, 'I don't buy everything the government has to tell me,'" Rodriguez told the Times. "In that sense, you could call her something of a freethinker." In her responses to the Judiciary Committee, she described herself as an "originalist" and a "textualist" — ideals "long identified with conservative judges" — but noted that she would follow precedents set by Supreme Court and appellate court rulings, wrote Russell Berman in The Atlantic.

Trump ties

When Cannon initially ruled to grant Trump a special master to review the documents seized from his private residence, the decision "drew scrutiny from experts" who "questioned her legal reasoning and criticized some of the language in her opinion about what rights a former president is entitled to," the Times stated. And with those early rulings still top of mind, many fear she will once again hand Trump an easy victory or at least push the verdict his way.

But some Democratic lawyers who have appeared before Cannon in the past say "she is a smarter, more deliberate and more even-handed judge than the early criticism of her would suggest," Berman wrote for The Atlantic. "I think the government should be very happy that they have Judge Cannon," Richard Klugh, a defense attorney and purported lifelong Democrat, told the outlet. "She's confident enough to go through things independently."

While there's no guarantee Cannon will remain on Trump's case — many have called on her to recuse herself — she will, while assigned, have "broad authority" to control almost "every aspect" of the proceedings, The Guardian noted, "including which evidence is admissible, the ability to slow down or speed up proceedings, and even the legal viability of the justice department's case." The trial is currently set to begin as early as Aug. 14, though that date could change as things develop.

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Brigid Kennedy

Brigid is a staff writer at The Week and a graduate of Syracuse University's S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications. Her passions include improv comedy, David Fincher films, and breakfast food. She lives in New York.