Court gavel on a strike plate, with the Scales of Justice and books in the background

Judge approves Trump's request for 'special master' to review seized documents

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Anthony Hennen

(The Center Square) – A Florida district judge has granted former President Donald Trump’s request for a “special master” to review the materials seized by the FBI from his Mar-a-Lago home.

The master, a third party chosen by Trump’s legal team, and the FBI, will ensure that irrelevant or potentially privileged documents will not be seen by the federal government’s legal team that is investigating Trump.

U.S. District Court Judge Aileen Cannon said in a court order Monday that she was “mindful of the need to ensure at least the appearance of fairness and integrity under the extraordinary circumstances presented” in the case.

The court also temporarily enjoined the government from using the materials until the special master completes their review. 

By September 9, Trump’s legal team and the federal government must submit a joint filing with a list of proposed special master candidates and an outline of their duties and limitations.

The seizure concerns potentially classified documents in Trump’s possession. 

When Trump transferred 15 boxes of records to the National Archives and Records Administration in January 2021, officials told the Department of Justice that some items had classified markings on them. NARA transferred the boxes to the FBI May 18, 2022. 

May 11, a week prior to the transfer, the DOJ obtained a subpoena to seize documents “bearing classification markings” from Trump’s residence. June 2, Trump requested the FBI pick up the documents the next day.

When FBI agents visited Mar-a-Lago to get the documents, the government contends that they found “multiple sources of evidence” indicating that not all potentially classified documents were turned over to them. August 5, the government applied for a search warrant and, on August 8, the FBI searched Trump’s residence.

To ensure that privileged records are not turned over to the federal government’s investigative team, the special master will review the seized materials.

The court order, however, did not condemn the seizure itself.

“The 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 the Plaintiff’s constitutional rights,” Cannon wrote.

Ensuring that the former president’s rights are not violated is what created the need for a special master.

Cannon noted that the federal government admitted it seized some “(p)ersonal effects without evidentiary value” and “upwards of 500 pages of material potentially subject to attorney-client privilege.”

“Plaintiff faces an unquantifiable potential harm by way of improper disclosure of sensitive information to the public,” Cannon wrote. “Further, Plaintiff is at risk of suffering injury from the Government’s retention and potential use of privilege materials in the course of a process that, thus far, has been closed off to Plaintiff and that has raised at least some concerns as to its efficacy, even if inadvertently so.”

The special master review does not mean that all the seized material will qualify as privileged or irrelevant, however.

“Plaintiff ultimately may not be entitled to return of much of the seized property or to prevail on his anticipated claims of privilege. That inquiry remains for another day,” Cannon wrote. “For now, the circumstances surrounding the seizure in this case and the associated need for adequate procedural safeguards are sufficiently compelling to at least get Plaintiff past the courthouse doors.”

The special master has the responsibility to determine whether some of the documents are personal records or presidential records, and whether some personal items have evidentiary value for an investigation.

Cannon’s ruling was focused on the investigational procedure, rather than speculating on the evidence in the case.

“A commitment to the appearance of fairness is critical, now more than ever,” Cannon wrote. “The investigation and treatment of a president is of unique interest to the general public, and the country is served best by an orderly process that promotes the interest and perception of fairness.”