The ruling comes after a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit heard from the Department of Justice (DOJ) and Trump’s lawyers on Nov. 22 regarding the government’s motion to remove U.S. District Judge Raymond Dearie as special master.
This appointment of a special master by U.S. District Judge Aileen Cannon, a Trump appointee, barred the DOJ from getting their hands on the documents as they pursued a criminal investigation into Trump “pending resolution” of the review.
The federal appeals court ruled that Cannon had no jurisdiction to exercise what’s known as equitable jurisdiction—or the authority of the court to act in the interest of fairness—in this scenario where an indictment hadn’t been announced and without showing that the seizure of documents was unlawful.
Exercising equitable jurisdiction should only be “exceptional” and “anomalous,” the judges said. They noted that legal precedent had limited this jurisdiction with a four-factor test. Trump’s jurisdictional arguments “fail all four factors,” they said.
In their opinion, the judges said they had considered their options: either “drastically expand” the availability of equitable jurisdiction for every subject of a search warrant, carve out an “unprecedented exception” in the law for former presidents, or apply their usual test.
They chose to apply their usual four-factor test, noting that only the “narrowest of circumstances permit a district court to invoke equitable jurisdiction” and that this was “not one of them.”
The appeals court judges remanded the district court to dismiss Trump’s civil action originally calling for the special master.
“The law is clear,” the appeals court judges wrote in their opinion (pdf). “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,” the opinion continued. “And both would violate bedrock separation-of-powers limitations.”
Jack Smith, a recently appointed special counsel, tasked with leading the investigation into whether the former president violated the Espionage Act and other federal laws through the handling of certain records, including papers with secret markings, brought the appeals court challenge.
The DOJ is looking into any obstruction of justice by Trump, as well as any legal violations involving the removal of White House records.
Trump’s legal team has claimed executive privilege over some of the documents while contending that others were personal papers rather than official records and that he had the authority to classify them as such as the outgoing president.
The former president has described the FBI raid as “prosecutorial misconduct, the weaponization of the Justice System, and an attack by Radical Left Democrats who desperately don’t want [him] to run for President in 2024.”
He has also denied any wrongdoing.
Dearie was scheduled to complete his review to determine what seized materials should be off-limits to investigators in December.