Judge in Trump documents case rejects suggestions to step aside

Shortly after Judge Aileen M. Cannon assigned him in June 2023 to oversee former President Donald J. Trump’s classified documents case, two more senior colleagues on the Florida federal bench took him on. urged to drop the case and hand it over to another lawyer, according to two people briefed on the conversations.

The judges who contacted Judge Cannon — including Southern District of Florida Chief Judge Cecilia M. Altonaga — each asked her whether it would not be better if she declined the high-profile case, allowing her thus being referred to another court. judge, said the two people.

But Judge Cannon, appointed by Mr. Trump, wanted to maintain the case and the judges refused. Her assignment raised eyebrows because she had analyzed the trial experience and had already shown Mr. Trump unusual favor by intervening in a way that helped him in the criminal investigation that led to his indictment, only to be overturned by a highly critical rebuke from a conservative appeals court.

The extraordinary, undisclosed efforts by Judge Cannon’s colleagues to persuade her to step down add another dimension to growing criticism of how she handled the case.

It broke, according to lawyers who work there, with a general practice among federal judges in the Southern District of Florida of delegating certain pretrial motions to a magistrate – in this case, Judge Bruce E. Reinhart. Although subordinate to him, Judge Reinhart is an older and much more experienced jurist. In 2022, he was the one who signed an FBI warrant to search Mar-a-Lago, Mr. Trump’s club and Florida residence, for highly sensitive government records that Mr. Trump kept after leaving his functions.

Since then, Judge Cannon has shown hostility toward prosecutors, handled pretrial motions slowly, and postponed the trial indefinitely, refusing to set a date for its start even though the prosecution and defense told him that They could be ready to start this summer.

But Mr. Trump’s lawyers also urged her to postpone any trial until after the election, and the way she handled the case all but assured the success of that strategy. Should Mr. If Trump takes back the White House, he could order the Justice Department to drop the case.

As Judge Cannon’s handling of the case has come under increasing scrutiny, his critics have suggested it may be out of date, in Mr. Trump’s tank — or both.

Against this backdrop, news of her judicial colleagues’ early efforts to persuade her to step down – and the significance of her decision not to do so – spread among other federal judges and the people who serve them. know.

Neither Judge Cannon nor Judge Altonaga directly responded to requests for comment, including emails sent via District Court Clerk Angela E. Noble. MS. Noble later wrote in an email: “Our judges do not comment on pending cases. »

It is common for junior judges to turn to more experienced jurists for informal advice or mentoring as they learn to take on their new roles. And as Chief District Officer, Judge Altonaga plays a formal role in the administration of the federal court system in South Florida.

But ultimately, Judge Cannon is not subject to the authority of district court elders. Like any Senate-confirmed and presidentially appointed judge, she is appointed for life and independent and is free to choose to ignore such advice.

The two people who discussed efforts to persuade her to hand over the case spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the matter. Each had been informed of this by different federal judges in the Southern District of Florida, including Judge Altonaga.

Neither person identified the second Florida federal judge who contacted Judge Cannon. One of the people confirmed efforts to persuade Judge Cannon to step down, but did not describe the details of the conversations the two justices had with her. The other person offered more details.

This person said every contact took place over the phone. The first judge to call Judge Cannon, this person said, suggested to him that the case would be better handled by a jurist based closer to the busiest courthouse in the Miami district, where the grand jury that indicted Mr. Trump was seated.

The Miami courthouse also had secure facilities approved for storing the type of highly classified information that would be discussed in pretrial motions and used as evidence in the case. Judge Cannon is the only judge at the federal courthouse in Fort Pierce, a two-hour drive north of Miami. When she was assigned to the case, the Fort Pierce courthouse did not have secure facilities.

Because Judge Cannon held up the case, taxpayers have since had to pay to build a secure room there — known as the Sensitive Compartment Information Center, or SCIF.

After that initial argument failed to convince Judge Cannon to step aside, the person said, Judge Altonaga made an appeal.

The chief justice — appointed by former President George W. Bush — reportedly made a more pointed argument: It would be bad optics for Judge Cannon to oversee the trial because of what happened during the criminal investigation that led to the arrest of Mr. Trump is charged with illegally possessing national security documents after leaving office and obstructing government efforts to recover them.

In August 2022, the FBI obtained a search warrant from Judge Reinhart to go to Mar-a-Lago to search for any remaining classified documents that Mr. Trump had failed to surrender after receiving a subpoena to appear against them.

Agents found thousands of government records that Mr. Trump had kept, even though under the Presidential Records Act they should have been deposited with the National Archives when he left office. The files recovered by the FBI included more than 100 classified as classified, including some at the most restricted level.

Shortly after the search, Mr. Trump filed a lawsuit against the government to protest the seizure of the documents, which he said were his personal property, and to request that a special master be appointed to review them. Rather than let Judge Reinhart handle this trial, as would be normal procedure, Judge Cannon chose to decide the case.

Shocking legal experts across the ideological spectrum, she barred investigators from accessing evidence and appointed a special master, although she said that person would only make recommendations to her and would make final decisions.

Judge Cannon’s decision was unusual in part because it came before there were charges — treating Mr. Trump differs from typical targets of search warrants because of his alleged special status as a former president.

She also asked the special master to consider whether some of the seized records should be permanently withheld from investigators under executive privilege, a notion widely considered dubious since it has never been successfully pursued in a criminal case.

Prosecutors appealed to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta. In a repudiation, a three-judge panel, including two appointed by Trump, vacated her order and ruled that she never had the legal authority to intervene in the first place.

“It is indeed extraordinary that an arrest warrant would be executed at the home of a former president – ​​but not in a way that affects our legal analysis or gives the judiciary authority to intervene in an investigation ongoing,” the panel wrote.

Limits on the circumstances in which courts can interfere with a criminal investigation “apply regardless of who the government is investigating,” he adds. “Creating a special exception here would run counter to our nation’s fundamental principle that our law applies ‘to all, without regard to number, wealth, or rank.'”

Mr. Trump’s lawyers appealed to the Supreme Court, but it refused to hear the case. In December 2022, Judge Cannon dismissed Mr. Trump’s lawsuit

Six months later, the Miami grand jury indicted Mr. Trump, alleging in detail how he stored highly sensitive documents in bathrooms and on a stage at Mar-a-Lago and constantly led his aides and lawyers to thwarting efforts by the Department of Justice and the National Archives to recover them.

Under the district’s usual practices, according to its clerk, the new case was entered into a system that would randomly assign it to one of a handful of judges whose chambers are in the West Palm Beach division, which covers Mar- a-Lago, or in either of its two adjacent divisions, Fort Pierce and Fort Lauderdale.

The case was assigned to Judge Cannon.

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