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.