Appeals court wipes out Trump lawsuit over Mar-a-Lago search

In dismissing case, three-judge panel declines to ‘carve out an unprecedented exception in our law for former presidents’

The Mar-a-Lago Club  in Palm Beach, Fla., is pictured in November. (Phelan M. Ebenhack/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
The Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach, Fla., is pictured in November. (Phelan M. Ebenhack/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
Posted December 1, 2022 at 7:09pm

A federal appeals court on Thursday tossed out Donald Trump’s lawsuit to keep federal prosecutors from using documents the FBI seized in a search of the former president’s private club.

The case, which could head to the Supreme Court, centers on thousands of documents found at Mar-a-Lago this summer as part of a criminal investigation into whether Trump took classified materials with him at the end of his term.

In a unanimous opinion, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit ruled that the case should be dismissed because Judge Aileen Cannon did not even have the power to hear the case.

“This 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 opinion states. “The answer is no.”

Cannon, who was appointed to the bench by Trump, had halted the federal government’s criminal investigation of Trump and sent the thousands of documents seized in the search to an outside special master for review.

But the 11th Circuit found that such lawsuits to challenge search warrants typically must pass an established legal test, and Trump’s claims do not. Allowing Trump to pursue his lawsuit would mean giving him special treatment because he’s a former president, the appeals court wrote.

The panel wrote Trump’s lawsuit meant they faced three choices: “apply our usual test; drastically expand the availability of equitable jurisdiction for every subject of a search warrant; or carve out an unprecedented exception in our law for former presidents.”

“We choose the first option,” the opinion stated.

The 11th Circuit ordered Cannon to dismiss Trump’s civil lawsuit, which was not a surprise. In a separate order, the panel said it would formally notify the district court of the opinion in seven days.

All three judges on the panel — Chief Judge William H. Pryor Jr., Judge Andrew Brasher and Judge Britt Grant — were appointed by Republican presidents.

Previous ruling

Trump initially filed the case in Florida district court, seeking to block the government’s investigation and have all the documents seized in the search reviewed by an outside special master.

At the lower court, Trump successfully argued his status as former president and potential candidate justified the order halting the investigation.

Throughout the court fight, Trump argued the Biden administration abused the criminal justice process against a potential political rival. He also asserted he had broad declassification powers while president but never claimed to have declassified the documents at issue.

Last month, Attorney General Merrick B. Garland turned the Trump probe over to special counsel John L. “Jack” Smith. Smith, a war crimes prosecutor, took over the search litigation as well as a separate probe investigating efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election results.

Court documents released since the August search showed the government is investigating potential espionage, destruction of government documents and other crimes related to the storage of documents at the club.

The unprecedented search of the former president’s club came after more than 18 months of wrangling, with the National Archives and Records Administration seeking the return of government documents that Trump took with him at the end of the term.

Federal agents sought a search warrant in August after compiling evidence that Trump kept classified records at his private club, according to court documents. Since then, the government has said in court that 11 sets of those documents, about 100 in total, were marked with some form of classification.