Thursday, December 1, 2022

Goodbye to the Special Master in the Mar-a-Lago Search Warrant Case

The Department of Justice (DOJ) obtained numerous boxes of materials from Donald Trump’s residence at Mar-a-Lago, pursuant to a validly issued search warrant based on a finding of “probably cause.” Many of the documents collected were marked “classified” and should have been turned over to the National Archives and Records Administration. 

Mr. Trump was not pleased. In response, he filed a new action in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida, which he styled as a “Motion For Judicial Oversight And Additional Relief.” This case was assigned to Judge Aileen Cannon—whom Trump had appointed.  Judge Cannon decided that the Justice Department should not have access to the materials for investigative purposes until a Special Master reviewed them and decided what the DOJ should properly have. 

The DOJ appealed the decision to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals. The DOJ argued that the appointment of a Special Master was ludicrous and that Judge Cannon should not have entertained the case in the first place. Today, a three- judge panel (one appointed by Bush and two by Trump, for those who are keeping score), issued a scathing opinion in favor of the DOJ. The first paragraph of the decision says it all: 

“This appeal requires us to consider whether the district court had jurisdiction to block the United States from using lawfully seized records in a criminal investigation. The answer is no.” 

This was not a difficult decision for the Court of Appeals to make. It all comes down to a fundamental rule in the Federal court system. Federal courts are called courts of limited jurisdiction. In other words, there are specific rules and classifications that apply before a federal court will even accept your case. If the case that you, as a plaintiff, want to file does not fit into those classifications, you are out of luck. 

There is one exception to that rule, however. If you can show that an extremely rare reason exists, the court may exercise “equitable” jurisdiction. As the Court of Appeals said here, “Only the narrowest of circumstances permit a district court to invoke equitable jurisdiction. Such decisions ‘must be exercised with caution and restraint,’ as equitable jurisdiction is appropriate only in ‘exceptional cases where equity demands intervention.’” 

The judicial test to see if it should exercise equitable jurisdiction has four components—and you need to satisfy all of them. The Court of Appeals found that Judge Cannon was incorrect on all four. Therefore, not only did the judge not have the authority to appoint a Special Master, but she lacked jurisdiction to hear the case at all. 

The result is that the entire case filed by Trump is being dismissed and the DOJ can continue with its investigation, using all of the materials obtained in the search warrant. 

It is, of course, possible that Trump’s attorneys will ask the Supreme Court to overturn this decision. A reversal is exceptionally unlikely.

Monday, September 26, 2022

Search Warrants and National Security


When we last discussed the search warrant for Trump’s Mar-a-Lago residence, Trump was flummoxed that his appointed judge had found probable cause to issue the warrant. So he went to a different judge that he had appointed (Judge Cannon) to get an injunction against the use of the materials seized. His belief was that a Special Master should be appointed to review the seized items. The ultimate goal was to have some of the items returned to him and to have others taken from investigators for a number of inconsistent and mutually exclusive reasons.

Trump’s lawyers and the Department of Justice both proposed two names to be the Special Master, with the DOJ eventually agreeing to one of Trump’s proposed Special Masters, Judge Raymond Dearie. 

In Cannon’s appointment of Judge Dearie, she also set the rules for his review of the items seized in the warrant. She said he was to review everything but that the DOJ could continue, for classification purposes only, the review of approximately 100 documents with top secret or similar markings. The DOJ was prohibited from using the materials for any other purposes, including the continuation of their criminal investigation. 

It was clear to the DOJ that Trump’s goal in having a Special Master appointed was to delay and obfuscate the proceedings as long as possible and to throw in as many objections as possible. So they had a choice. They could either sit back and wait for Judge Dearie to complete his review (which could take months) or to appeal Judge Cannon’s order to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals. 

The cynical among us would first look at the composition of the 11th Circuit. In all likelihood, they would be Trump-appointed judges. The DOJ decided to appeal but did so in a brilliant manner. They could have appealed the appointment of a Special Master, but the 11th Circuit could very well deny that appeal on the grounds that Judge Cannon was simply exercising judicial discretion.

Instead, the DOJ focused on a singular issue – the national security interest in protecting top secret documents and in taking prompt and prudent action to make sure that (1) our national security was not compromised and (2) any criminal activity related to those documents was vigorously pursued. 

It came as no surprise that the three-judge panel hearing the DOJ appeal had two members appointed by Trump. That mattered not. It took the court mere days to rule, unanimously, that the DOJ was correct in its analysis. Their decision reversing Judge Cannon was as brutal a rebuke as you will ever see from a court. Typically, a court will say that the judge “erred” in her analysis. This court said that she had “abused her discretion.” This is the judicial equivalent of asking “Are you kidding me????” There are four legal standards that Judge Cannon was supposed to meet to justify her order. The 11th Circuit found that she was wrong ON ALL FOUR. 

Within 18 hours of the 11th Circuit decision, Judge Cannon “amended” her previous order, giving the DOJ full authority to use those 100 documents for criminal investigation purposes. 

Special Master Judge Dearie, who is highly respected jurist, was in the unenviable position of sitting in the middle of this ping pong match. He had been dutifully following Judge Cannon’s directives, but when the 11th Circuit ruling came down, his marching orders changed in an instant. 

Judge Dearie has adopted a no-nonsense approach. He hired another judge to help expedite the review of the materials (at $500/hour with the cost to be paid by Trump). He also gave Trump’s attorneys one week to decide whether Trump would argue, under oath, the various claims he has been promoting on Truth Social and his favorite talk shows. This is the judicial equivalent of “put up or shut up.” The smart money is not on “put up.” 

This would be the end of my post were it not for something I have never seen before. Decisions of appellate courts are often quoted in later cases as a matter of establishing the credibility of those rulings. It is typically months, if not years, before a decision is quoted. 

The 11th Circuit decision was quoted in, get this, 17 hours! 

Mike Lindell, the My Pillow guy, had his phone taken by the FBI at a Wendy’s drive-through. He argued that he should get it back. Forget for the moment that his legal argument was poorly constructed. What was notable was that the court denied his request, quoting the 11th Circuit. 

I’ve had cases where the judge has asked whether I had any more recent case authority to support my position. That was probably not an issue here.

Friday, September 23, 2022

The How and Why of New York’s fraud case against Donald Trump

The long-expected civil fraud case against Donald Trump and others was finally filed this week. It is 220 pages of allegations against 16 defendants, covering 11 years of alleged misdeeds, 20 different properties, and 16 different varieties of fraud. To say the complaint is comprehensive is an understatement. 

It is not my purpose here to get into whether or not the case has merit, though there is certainly enough to survive a motion to dismiss. Instead, it makes sense to step back and answer some frequently (and not so frequently) asked questions. 

Why file a civil case rather than a criminal one? There are a number of reasons. First, civil cases are easier to prove. You only need to prevail by a preponderance of the evidence rather than showing guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Second, a defendant has no fifth amendment rights in a civil case. You may recall that when Trump was subpoenaed to testify, he refused to answer more than 400 times. That refusal may be used by a jury to infer culpability. Third, in a civil case you may get a money judgment. Here, we are looking at the possibility of $250 million. Fourth, in a civil case you can get more than just money. One of the results of this case could prohibit Trump from doing business in the State of New York. Fifth, you can sue someone without stating he is a criminal, something that defendants often decry to show that they are being unjustly prosecuted. Sixth, a state civil case cannot be dismissed with a pardon. Seventh, there is still the possibility that Trump and his family may face criminal charges. However, those cases should be filed by a different party, such as the IRS. 

Why file the case now for conduct going back to 2011? The timing seems a bit suspect. Blame Trump for this one. For many years he has used every possible legal maneuver to keep relevant information from the attorney general, including tax and accounting records. It was only last month that the attorney general was finally able to obtain records from Mazars, one of Trump’s accounting firms. This was the missing piece of the puzzle. 

Why are there so many defendants besides Donald Trump? The answer to this is finger pointing. One common defense to fraud is that “somebody else did it” and that the complaint should be dismissed for that reason. The complaint names all of the major parties who could be that “somebody else.” A second reason to name multiple defendants is that they may have different levels of involvement or defenses to the actions. In many cases, defendants within the same lawsuit may throw others under the bus in order to escape personal liability. 

Why does the alleged fraud cover 11 years? Proving that conduct occurred over multiple years eliminates the defense that this was an inadvertent, one-time “mistake.” 

Why does the alleged fraud include 20 different properties owned by Trump or his organizations? Similar to the multi-year rationale, the attorney general can show that fraud was pervasive and took many forms. 

Why didn’t the attorney general sue Trump for other wrongdoing? First, the fraud complaint is complicated enough without adding in other allegations. Second, lawyers try to not add weak allegations when they already have a strong one. Third, confining the allegations to fraud eliminates the defense that the attorney general is “piling on.” Furthermore, there is no reason why a separate lawsuit covering other matters could not be brought later on. 

If this case goes to trial, when will that happen? Years from now. 

Then what will the impact of the lawsuit be between now and trial? The lawsuit provides sunlight. Much of Trump’s traditional answer to prospective charges is that they are politically motivated or a “witch hunt.” Here, the attorney general has provided chapter and verse of wrongdoing. In addition, prospective lenders are now on actual notice that the Trumps may have engaged in questionable business practices. Lenders tend to be reluctant to provide financing to those with a history of fraud.

The complaint, as lengthy as it is, is only required to show that bare bones of the fraudulent conduct. Much greater and potentially damaging detail will come out as the lawsuit progresses. By the same token, any defenses will also come to light.

Monday, September 5, 2022

So Now We Have a Special Master

Today, Judge Aileen Cannon, a federal district court judge in Florida, granted Donald Trump’s request for the appointment of Special Master to independently review materials acquired during an authorized search in Mar-a-Lago. 

The reasoning in Judge Cannon’s 26-page order showed that even a moderately qualified judge can be a talented contortionist. I’ll leave the legal shortcomings of the opinion to be parsed by others. Stepping back, though, a few things are notable. 

First, there is nothing in the order to indicate that the search of the premises was either illegal, ill-advised or politically motivated. In fact, the judge noted that: 

[T]he Court agrees with the Government that, at least based on the record to date, there has not been a compelling showing of callous disregard for Plaintiff’s constitutional rights. This factor cuts against the exercise of equitable jurisdiction.

That talking point about the search warrant has bitten the dust. 

Second, one of Judge Cannon’s reasons to appoint a Special Master is, to use her words, “the interest in ensuring the integrity of an orderly process amidst swirling allegations of bias and media leaks.” She further noted that “[a] commitment to the appearance of fairness is critical, now more than ever.” 

As reasonable as this sounds, Judge Cannon failed to address the fact that she was appointed by then-president Trump, and that she had indicated, even before the government was able to present its arguments, that she was “inclined to grant the injunction.” 

When the “appearance of fairness” is at issue, a judge will often recuse (refuse to hear the case). She never even mentioned that possibility, as ethical judges are wont to do. Instead, she also found that “[t]hough somewhat convoluted, this filing is procedurally permissible.”

Third, even while stopping the investigative use of the seized materials, the judge held that “The Government may continue to review and use the materials seized for purposes of intelligence classification and national security assessments.” Allowing this review to continue showed that there were national security concerns raised by Trump holding onto official archival records. Apparently, including this review in the injunction order was a bridge too far. 

The Department of Justice is currently weighing whether or not to appeal Judge Cannon’s order. The investigative delay caused by appointing a Special Master is a minor inconvenience at best.


Friday, August 12, 2022

Cutting through the search warrant noise

I have spent considerable time this afternoon sorting through the contents of the warrant, reading the statutes, and gauging the various reactions to it.

We can get rid of a couple of talking points right away. 

First, from a legal standpoint it does not matter whether the materials seized were classified or not. It also does not matter whether Trump did (or could) declassify these documents on his own volition. Those arguments are smokescreens. The statutes underling the warrant, especially those dealing with espionage, make no distinction between classified and unclassified materials. The only question is whether Trump was, as a matter of law, entitled to retain these documents and materials.

Second, as Attorney General Garland pointed out, search warrants are not issued lightly, particularly at this level. The record shows that the materials seized this week had previously been subpoenaed. It was Trump’s failure to produce them under the terms of the subpoena that made the search warrant the only available remedy to get them. 

Moving on. It is the job of lawyers to cut through the noise (and there’s plenty of it here). While most people are talking about what was seized, the most critical piece of the puzzle is the criminal statutes listed in the probable cause affidavit that led to the warrant being issued. 

In order for the judge to grant the search warrant, he needed to find probable cause for EACH of the statute violations that would constitute a crime. Therefore, if the judge decided that the only violated statute was retaining government records, he would have rejected the part of the warrant pertaining to other crimes, including espionage.

Do you see why this is important? It means that the judge found probable cause that there was a violation of the espionage statute. THIS is what people should be talking about. 

Further, because espionage necessarily involves more than one person, the seized materials may be used to charge additional individuals with numerous felonies, including treason. 

If indictments eventually come down for a number of people, the serious finger pointing will start and plea deals for cooperation will begin.  Typically, the smaller fish rat out the larger ones and we know who the largest fish is. 

Some are suggesting that the issuance of the search warrant smacks of political vindictiveness. However, both the FBI Director and judge were appointed by Trump. They had every excuse to not act. However, probable cause of espionage simply could not be ignored. 

Wednesday, August 10, 2022

“Taking the Fifth“ has its risks

We normally associate “taking the Fifth” with a criminal case. Refusing to testify or answer questions where you are a criminal defendant cannot be used against you by the jury. This is your constitutional right against self-incrimination. 

In civil cases, the impact of refusing to testify is more complicated. Consider what happened today in New York. 

Donald Trump appeared this morning for questioning under oath in New York’s continuing investigation into his business practices. He refused to answer questions, citing his Fifth Amendment rights. 

Although he certainly had the right to refuse to answer, that refusal may come back to bite him. In a CIVIL case, a jury may consider the refusal to testify or answer questions as evidence of wrongdoing.  This is especially true where there is independent evidence of the facts at issue. 

Trump’s argument against testifying today is at least partially based on the fact that he is currently also under criminal investigation. His fear is that his statements under oath in the civil case could be used against him in a criminal case. When he previously raised that argument in order to delay the civil investigation, the New York courts rejected it. 

Trump’s failure to succeed in what are his typical delaying tactics have now placed him in a quandary. If he does not testify in the civil matter, the jury could later use that silence to find him liable for significant money damages. If he does testify in the civil case, that testimony might damage his defense in a criminal matter. 

In spite of what has the potential of being a massive financial judgment against him, Trump really cannot afford to testify in the civil case. 

In my summation before the jury, I would note Trump’s own statement at an Iowa rally in 2017: "You see the mob takes the Fifth. If you're innocent, why are you taking the Fifth Amendment?" 

His attorney would respond with his statement posted today on his social media site: “I once asked, 'If you're innocent, why are you taking the Fifth Amendment?' Now I know the answer to that question. I declined to answer the questions under the rights and privileges afforded to every citizen under the United States Constitution." 

My rebuttal then would be short and sweet. “It is clear that the defendant feels comfortable taking completely opposite positions when it suits him. As such, he has no credibility.”

Tuesday, August 9, 2022

Search Warrants and Whataboutisms

Criminal investigations can be highly complex matters. The gathering of evidence is critical to making certain that any case that is brought is supported by only the most credible supporting documents. 

Some of the documentation can be obtained from third party sources, such as credible eyewitnesses, confidential informants, video and audio records, and paperwork in the possession of others. However, the frequently most damaging evidence is in the possession of the potential defendant. 

Obtaining materials from a potential defendant can be obtained in number of ways.  The defendant can always provide the materials voluntarily. Obviously, this does not happen often. 

Absent cooperation, information may be obtained by a subpoena, a court-authorized demand for relevant papers. There are a couple of downsides to the subpoena process. 

First, a subpoena may be challenged as to relevancy or scope. Challenges to subpoenas have the effect of dramatically delaying the production of documents, often for years if appeals are pursued. The reason delays are implicit in this process is that subpoenas are often fishing expeditions. Prosecutors will often ask for broad categories of information, some of which may not actually be germane to the charges. The challenges to the subpoena frequently are designed to narrow the scope of what should legitimately be produced. 

Second, and perhaps the more critical limitation of subpoenas, is that once someone knows that records are being demanded, there is ample opportunity to hide or destroy evidence. 

The final way to obtain documents is through the use of a search warrant. This method is most frequently used when there is a fear that evidence will be hidden or destroyed. 

Although subpoenas are relatively easy to obtain, the requirements for obtaining a search warrant are stringent. There are sound constitutional and public policy reasons for this. By their very nature, search warrants involve invading the homes and businesses of individuals without the opportunity for them to object. The general “fishing for information” goal is therefore not enough to obtain a warrant. 

In order to get a search warrant, a judge must approve the request. The judge must find that there is “probable cause” to believe that a SPECIFIC crime has been committed (which is outlined in the warrant request). The judge must also be convinced that material evidence about the crime is located in the premises to be searched. Finally, the judge will specifically circumscribe when and where the search is to be conducted. 

Once the materials are seized, this is not the end of the protections for the defendant. Seized materials are still subject to evidence rules pertaining to what may be used in a court case. 

In a lower level criminal case, the prosecutor may ask for a warrant based on the sworn affidavit of a reliable confidential informant. For example, the informant may say that he is personally aware of drug-making materials at a particular address. That will usually be enough to issue the warrant, because if the defendant knew someone is coming, there would be nothing left to find. 

The standard for obtaining a search warrant for a former president is incredibly and nearly impossibly high. Any judge would be extremely reluctant to issue the warrant unless the rationale for obtaining it was almost unassailable. In the Trump case, the Justice Department imposed an even higher degree of difficulty upon themselves by requesting the warrant from a judge that Trump appointed. Therefore, to say that the DOJ likely had a strong case coming in is a massive understatement. 

Those reacting negatively to this warrant have variously described the process as “corrupt” or as evidence of the “deep state.” That argument is pure garbage. The process to obtain this warrant followed the precise procedural safeguards that forms the basis of our system of government. 

Further, for those who are saying “other people have committed crimes too, why isn’t the DOJ going after them?”, remember the exceptionally high standard for obtaining the warrant. Mere supposition of a crime, even if it fits your preferred narrative, is simply not enough.

Thursday, February 17, 2022

Why Stopping a Subpoena Can Be a Big Thing

The State of New York has sued the Trump Organization and Trump family members individually as part of investigation into several questionable financial dealings. Oversimplified, the suit suggests that the defendants carried at least two sets of financial books. One set of books purportedly inflated property values for purposes of obtaining financing. Another one deflated values for tax purposes. 

This is a civil suit that seeks financial damages, unlike a criminal suit that might result in jail time. 

New York issued subpoenas to Trump family members to testify under oath in a deposition. Today’s hearing was to hear Trumps’ objections to these subpoenas. The court denied Trumps’ objections and ordered the family members to appear for depositions within a few weeks’ time. The order will certainly be appealed. 

One may ask why this is such a big deal. After all, Eric Trump has had his deposition taken previously in this case and “pleaded the fifth” more than 500 times. 

As anyone who has taken a Government class will recall, you are never forced to testify against yourself. You are completely protected from incriminating yourself. The effect of refusing to testify (or answer questions), however, is markedly different in criminal and civil cases. 

In a criminal case, the refusal to testify may not be used against you. Thus, a jury must disregard your willingness or unwillingness to testify in determining your guilt or innocence. 

In a civil case, you retain the right to refuse to answer questions or testify. However, the jury make take that into account in deciding the case. In other words, a jury could infer bad intent if the Trumps were to refuse to answer questions. 

Donald Trump has repeatedly said publicly that people who “take the fifth” or refuse to testify are likely guilty of charges against them. The State of New York will undoubtedly introduce those statements into evidence at the eventual civil trial if testimony is refused. 

That is why it was so important for the Trumps to win on the subpoena motion. Having lost, they are now facing a true quandary. Do they testify and subject themselves to explaining financial discrepancies (and possible perjury) or do they remain silent and accept the consequences of that inference? 

The answer to that question has taken on even greater weight this week when their accounting firm stated in a letter that financial statements over the last ten years are unreliable. In the same letter, the Trump Organization was fired as a client due to a “conflict of interest.” 

In this context, “conflict of interest” means that the accounting firm believes that their interests and that of the Trump Organization are in conflict. The Trump Organization was, to use a common phrase, thrown under the bus.