In September, Lawyers Defending American Democracy reported on the unexpected and unprecedented actions of Florida District Court Judge Aileen Cannon for her rulings in a criminal investigation into former President Trump’s handling of presidential documents, including many designated as top secret. LDAD concluded that Judge Cannon’s ruling appointing a Special Master and effectively halting a criminal investigation was unprecedented and gave the appearance of partiality to the former President.  

The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals – comprised of a three-judge panel including the Chief Justice and two justices appointed by the former president – unequivocally rejected Judge Cannon’s exercise of “equitable jurisdiction” over the United States Department of Justice’s execution of a search warrant at the former President’s home in Mar-a-Lago.  

Noting that criminal investigations are the purview of the Executive Branch, and may only be overseen by a federal court in truly extraordinary circumstances - specifically when there has been a showing of “callous disregard” for the constitutional rights of the criminal target - the Court concluded that there was no evidence that the government had overstepped its lawful authority or stepped on the former president’s constitutional rights.  

Dispensing with Judge Cannon’s other proffered reasons for the exercise of federal jurisdiction, namely that the former President would suffer “stigma” associated with the possible disclosure of sensitive information related to the criminal investigation, or by being deprived temporarily of seized items, the Court noted that acceptance of these arguments would then make them available to all criminal targets: 

 “Plaintiff [] asks us to refashion our analysis in a way that, if consistently applied, would make equitable jurisdiction available for every subject of every search warrant. He asks us to ignore our precedents finding that a callous disregard for constitutional rights is indispensable. He asks us to conclude that a property interest in a seized item is a sufficient ‘need’ for its immediate return. He asks us to treat any stigma arising from the government’s access to sensitive personal information or the threat of potential prosecution as irreparable injuries. . . Anyone could make these arguments. And accepting them would upend [precedent], requiring federal courts to oversee routine criminal investigations beyond their constitutionally ascribed role of approving a search warrant based on a showing of probable cause. Our precedents do not allow this, and neither does our constitutional structure.”

Finally, and perhaps most critically, the Court soundly rejected the former President’s claims of entitlement to special treatment in a criminal investigation based solely upon his status as a former president.  The Court stated:

“Only one possible justification for equitable jurisdiction [by Judge Cannon] remains: that Plaintiff is a former President of the United States. It is indeed extraordinary for a warrant to be executed at the home of a former president—but not in a way that affects our legal analysis or otherwise gives the judiciary license to interfere in an ongoing investigation. 

To allow this, the Court found, would betray the “foundational principle that our law applies ‘to all, without regard to numbers, wealth, or rank.’”

LDAD is pleased to report that, for now, the rule of law has been restored for this important investigation that implicates national security, the role of independent federal law enforcement and the independence of the judiciary. As the Eleventh Circuit stated: “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. Nor can we write a rule that allows only former presidents to do so. Either approach would be a radical reordering of our caselaw limiting the federal courts’ involvement in criminal investigations.”