As a best federal lawyer, I have been asked to discuss the Appellate Court’s decision regarding the Mar-a-Lago documents. Today, the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit issued its Opinion in the case of United States v. Trump. As has been well-publicized, former President Trump’s lawyers had been able to persuade a federal District Court in Florida to intervene in the criminal investigation regarding Trump’s possession and handling of confidential documents that he took with him from the White House following his presidency. Those documents were stored at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida. The District Court appointed a Special Master to oversee the review of those documents, and also temporarily barred federal prosecutors from utilizing some of the seized documents in its investigation. These were quite novel actions by the District Court. Indeed, no potential criminal defendant or his/her counsel has historically been allowed to have access to documents seized by federal agents pursuant to a search warrant – while the investigation against that potential defendant is still underway – much less to have a Special Master appointed to oversee and review those seized documents.
Against that backdrop, today’s decision in United States v. Trump was not unexpected. Indeed, during the parties’ recent appellate oral argument in that case, the Eleventh Circuit panel of Judges expressed great skepticism regarding the District Court’s actions. Some observers found that surprising in light of the fact that all three of those Judges were Republican appointees, including two by Trump. But, the law is the law; precedent is precedent; and it is not often that federal appeals court go out of their way to pave new law in favor of potential criminal defendants, even a former member of the Executive branch.
In the Eleventh Circuit’s Opinion, the Court stated the issue and its conclusion succinctly and bluntly as, “[T]his 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.” In reaching that holding, the Court first noted that federal District Courts have limited jurisdiction over the cases and controversies that they are allowed to hear. The Court declined to carve out an exception to that limited jurisdiction in favor of a former President. The Court also rejected the notion that the District Court was allowed to entertain the case by way of its “equitable jurisdiction.” The Court found that the District Court could not rely upon the doctrine of “equitable jurisdiction” because it is use is reserved only for “exceptional circumstances,” and then never to “restrain criminal prosecutions.” The Court further noted that, if it were to accept Trump’s arguments, then virtually every potential criminal defendant could unilaterally stall a criminal investigation against him/her by likewise relying upon a federal District Court’s purported equitable jurisdiction.
The Court further held that Trump had failed to demonstrate that law enforcement had shown a “callous disregard” for his Constitutional rights. That holding too made sense because, apart from the status of the former President, and the nature of the documents at issue, the underlying search and seizure really was a run of the mill affair, like so many of its kind carried out on a daily basis in the same manner.
In sum, in rejecting the District Court’s actions, the Court held, “[T]he law is clear. We cannot write a law that allows any subject of a search warrant to block government investigations after the execution of a warrant. Nor can we write a rule that allows only former presidents to do so.”
From the standpoint of someone who regularly represents defendants and potential defendants in federal criminal-related matters, the Court’s Opinion makes total sense. However, it would sure be advantageous if, during my representation, I could bring federal investigations to a halt, just as former President Trump and his defense team attempted to do. But that will only happen in another universe.
Written by Michael Leonard
Leonard Trial Lawyers
December 1, 2022