(CNN) — In a major defeat for former US President Donald Trump, a federal appeals court on Thursday halted a third-party review of documents seized from the Mar-a-Lago property.
The ruling removes a major hurdle for the Justice Department’s investigation into the mishandling of government records from Trump’s time in the White House.
The three-judge panel of the US Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit reversed US District Judge Aileen Cannon’s order to appoint an independent expert called to review thousands of documents found at Trump’s home to determine what should be off limits to investigators. The court said that the judge should not have intervened in the first place.
“The law is clear,” the appeals court wrote. “We cannot write a rule that allows any subject of a search warrant to block government investigations after the warrant is executed. Nor can we write a rule that allows only former presidents to do so.”
The 11th Circuit said that either approach would be a “radical realignment of our jurisprudence that limits the involvement of federal courts in criminal investigations” and that “both would violate fundamental limitations on the separation of powers.”
The Justice Department is investigating obstruction of justice, criminal mishandling of government records and violations of the Espionage Act, according to court documents. The investigation came to the public eye with the August search, which came after investigators obtained evidence they said led them to believe that Trump had failed to comply with a subpoena to have all documents marked classified undisclosed. stored at his home in Florida.
The opinion, which was issued jointly by the three-judge panel made up of all Republican appointees, dismantled Trump’s arguments for why a special teacher was necessary. The court said that only in extraordinary circumstances should courts intervene in Justice Department investigations that are still in their early stages, and that standard had not been met here.
“This restriction protects against unnecessary judicial intrusion into the course of criminal investigations, a sphere of power entrusted to the executive branch,” the court wrote.
The appeals court said its new ruling will take effect in seven days unless one of the parties in the case successfully obtains an order, known as a stay, staying the ruling’s enforcement while it is appealed.
Trump’s legal team has not decided whether to appeal the ruling to the Supreme Court, but is weighing the option, a source familiar with the discussions told CNN.
The rebuke of Judge Cannon’s deference to Trump
The ruling is a stinging rebuke of how Judge Cannon inserted himself into the dispute. In addition to revoking the order, the appeals court is directing Cannon to dismiss the entire case.
The appeals court tapped into the idea, hinted at in his order appointing an independent expert, that Trump deserves special treatment because he is a former president.
“Indeed, it is extraordinary that an arrest warrant be executed at the home of a former president, but not in a way that affects our legal analysis or gives the judiciary license to interfere in an ongoing investigation,” said the president. court.
To create that “special exception,” the 11th Circuit wrote “it would challenge our Nation’s founding principle that our law applies ‘to all, regardless of number, wealth, or rank.'”
The three-judge panel that issued the ruling is made up of appointees of Republican presidents, including two appointed by Trump: Britt Grant and Andrew Basher. Both lawyers had previously hinted in a ruling related to the case that they believed Cannon had overreached.
The third, Judge William Pryor, the chief justice of the appeals court, is a George W. Bush appointee, who has long demonstrated conservative bona fides on a number of controversial issues.
Trump had sought out the independent expert in the weeks following the August search, securing Cannon’s warrant. Cannon had tasked Judge Raymond Dearie, a senior judge who sits in Brooklyn, with leading the review of the thousands of documents that remained.
During oral arguments in the 11th Circuit case, Trump’s attorney, James Trusty, said only about 900 of those documents were in dispute. Trump’s legal team maintains that the documents are his personal or privileged records and should be kept out of the scope of the investigation.
Lawyers for the Department of Justice argued that the independent expert witness process dragged on for several weeks, if not months, preventing the investigation of the documents. Prosecutors said without access to the other documents, they could not question witnesses about the materials found mixed with classified records at Mar-a-Lago.
The Justice Department effort is now being led by special counsel Jack Smith, who was appointed last week to lead that investigation and another investigation into efforts to reverse Trump’s 2020 election loss that could implicate the former president and current candidate. to the White House in 2024.
Smith took over the investigation shortly before the 11th Circuit heard oral arguments in the case and said in court filings that he approved of the position federal prosecutors had taken. He has promised that he will not allow his appointment to slow down the investigations he is in charge of.
— CNN’s Devan Cole and Kaitlan Collins contributed to this report.