A three-judge appeals court panel has granted the Justice Department’s request to block aspects of U.S. District Court Judge Aileen Cannon’s ruling that delayed a criminal investigation into highly sensitive documents seized from former President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate.
The panel ruled that Cannon, a Trump appointee, erred when she temporarily barred federal prosecutors from using the roughly 100 documents — marked classified — recovered from Trump’s estate as part of a criminal investigation.
Trump “has not even attempted to show that he has a need to know the information contained in the classified documents,” the panel ruled in a 29 pages decision. “Nor has he established that the current administration has waived this requirement for these documents.”
Two of the three judges on the panel, Andrew Brasher and Britt Grant, were appointed to the court by Trump. The third, Robin Rosenbaum, was appointed by President Barack Obama. In the unanimous ruling, the justices declared it “clearly” that the public interest was in favor of allowing the Justice Department to determine whether any of the records were disclosed improperly, risking harm to national security.
“For our part, we cannot discern why plaintiff would have an individual interest in or need for any of the hundreds of classified documents,” the appeals court wrote in an opinion that did not name any individual judge as an author.
While Cannon speculated in its ruling that allowing investigators continued access to the documents could result in leaks of their contents, the appeals panel dismissed that concern.
“Allowing the United States to retain the documents does not indicate that they will be released; one purpose of the United States’ efforts to investigate the recovered classified documents is to limit unauthorized disclosure of the information they contain,” the appeals judges wrote. “Not only that, but any authorized official who makes an improper disclosure risks his own criminal liability.”
The 11th Circuit’s rules appear to preclude any attempt to ask the full court to reconsider the government’s proposal, but Trump could seek emergency relief from the Supreme Court.
Trump’s lawyer Christopher Kise did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the ruling.
The appeals court’s opinion was lenient on Cannon and filled with indications that the appeals judges took a very different approach to the document battle than she did.
Trump’s legal team, Cannon and even a senior judge she appointed as a special master, have generally referred to the national security documents in question as “marked classified,” deferring at least to some extent to Trump’s claim that he declassified all the records found. at Mar-a-Lago, despite a lack of evidence to support his claim. But the appeals court panel took a different approach, often unreservedly referring to the records as “classified.”
They also characterized the public controversy over possible declassification of the documents as a “red herring,” arguing that while true, “it would not explain why [Trump] have a personal interest in them.”
Throughout their decision, the three judges made it clear they had little patience for Trump’s freewheeling claims about the status of the 100 documents, noting that he had not produced evidence to support those public claims. And they dryly noted that there is a sensible reason why documents contain classified markings.
“Classified documents are marked to show that they are classified, for example with their classification level,” the panel noted.
The timing of the appeals court’s decision, which came less than 24 hours after the parties concluded legal briefing on the issue, also signaled that the panel viewed the issue as straightforward.