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Trump’s special master case gets slapped down by his appointees

Judges he put on the bench not ruling in his favor must strike Donald Trump as a betrayal.
Image: Former US President Donald Trump during a 'Save America' rally.
Former President Donald Trump during a 'Save America' rally in Vandalia, Ohio, on Nov. 7, 2022. Joshua A. Bickel / Bloomberg via Getty Images file

The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals just dealt former President Donald Trump a serious legal blow. And really, this opinion overturning Trump's request for a special master reads like a judicial knockout punch. The panel characterized some of Trump’s arguments as a “sideshow.” But more than that, the panel concluded that the district court repeatedly “stepped in with its own reasoning” and reached an “unsupported conclusion.” Believe me, this language may sound straightforward, but the conclusion is legal venom. We need the fire emoji to truly do justice to the tone of this ruling.

We need the fire emoji to truly do justice to the tone of this ruling.

In addition to the loss itself, Trump must be particularly upset that he appointed two of the three judges on the panel that determined that he is not, in fact, entitled to a special master to review the documents the government seized in August at Mar-a-Lago, his home in Palm Beach, Florida. But this is hardly new. His judicial appointees have dealt him plenty of losses because they won’t ignore the law to hand him a win.  

The third judge on the panel was appointed by former Republican President George W. Bush. The panel clapped back at a legally erroneous ruling made by another Trump appointee, Judge Aileen Canon. Cannon granted Trump’s request for a third party, a special master, to review documents that the federal government seized from Trump’s residence. The problem with Cannon’s legal conclusion is that there was no law to back it up or, as I wrote then, it was “more like a political conclusion in search of a legal rationale than a judicial order.” 

As the 11th Circuit correctly concluded, the threshold problem with Cannon’s ruling is her decision that she had the jurisdiction to rule, when she in fact did not. Trump and his legal team went judge-shopping, and they found a friendly audience. Cannon concluded that there were “exceptional circumstances” for her to exercise something called equitable jurisdiction and hear the case. But the only thing exceptional about the circumstances were Cannon’s twisted legal conclusions.

As the 11th Circuit correctly noted, the only way for Cannon’s ruling to be correct would be to “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.” The panel correctly declined to let Cannon’s ruling stand, in part because it would have set the dangerous precedent of allowing targets of investigations to go to district court judges to challenge search warrants during the pre-indictment phase of an investigation. 

So despite district court Judge Cannon’s attempt to treat Trump as above the law, and despite her desire to create an “unprecedented exception” for the president who appointed her, her decision was slapped down by the other Trump appointees. Trump will likely file an emergency appeal to the Supreme Court, but he is unlikely to fare much better there. The Supreme Court — made up of six conservatives, three of whom Trump appointed — hasn’t been friendly to him, either.

It’s time, then, to step back and make the distinction between legal wins for Trump and legal wins for conservatives. We have sufficient evidence to conclude that Trump’s appointees to the federal judiciary are more concerned with doling out ideologically conservative rulings than they are concerned with vindicating the often baseless legal theories put forward by the former president. For Trump, someone apparently concerned with loyalty to him, but rather unconcerned with the rule of law, this must feel like a terrible betrayal.  

Over a year ago, the Supreme Court rejected Trump’s request to delay the ability of the Manhattan district attorney’s office to obtain his financial records. Earlier this year, the Supreme Court declined an appeal from Trump to bar the House select committee investigating the events of Jan. 6, 2021, from obtaining certain White House records. Last month, the Supreme Court refused Trump’s request to allow the special master to review the classified documents found at Mar-a-Lago. And last week, the Supreme Court denied Trump’s attempt to block Congress from getting his tax returns from the Internal Revenue Service.

Trump’s losses in federal court began even before he left office. Let’s remember all of the baseless and frivolous attempts he made to stay in office. According to one study, in the 13 presidential election cases brought in federal court, Trump appointees who ruled on cases alone or as part of a larger appellate panel cast zero votes in favor of Trump.  

We do ourselves a disservice to see so-called “Trump judges” as eager to carry his water.

There can be no doubt that Trump remade the federal judiciary and fundamentally reshaped the Supreme Court. But there’s a fundamental difference between, say, a decision to overturn Roe v. Wade and a decision that would block Congress from obtaining Trump’s taxes or White House documents. The former gives the conservative legal movement a huge win. The latter would have benefited nobody else but Trump. Judges and justices appointed by Trump have shown a willingness to ignore precedent to advance a conservative cause, but, with Cannon being an obvious exception, they have not generally done so to assist Trump’s personal goals.   

Simply put, we do ourselves a disservice to see so-called “Trump judges” as eager to carry his water. Trump judges, including those on the Supreme Court, appear to care about moving this country to the right, not about Trump, the man, or his warped legal arguments.