The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Anyone can submit filings to a court docket. The Mar-a-Lago probe proves it.

Dockets provide a glimpse into a quirky corner of U.S. court proceedings, highlighting the intense interest in Trump investigations

Pages from a September ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit that lifted a lower-court order barring the Justice Department from examining documents seized by the FBI at former president Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate. (Jon Elswick/AP)
7 min

O’Rane Cornish Sr. was reading yet another article about the FBI search of Donald Trump’s Florida residence when he decided to send the presiding judge a letter. The 70-year-old great-grandfather from Tennessee wrote that he was “offended and repulsed” that Judge Aileen M. Cannon allowed lawyers to refer to the ex-commander in chief as “president” in their legal filings. He suggested she recuse herself from the case.

Cornish’s three-page letter — technically called an amicus curiae, or a “friend of the court” submission — became filing No. 63 on a public docket that has grown to 128 documents, which together chronicle the significant and the mundane in Cannon’s appointment of a special master to review some 11,000 documents seized in the Aug. 8 search.

Most of the submissions to Cannon’s docket are filings by Trump’s legal team and government prosecutors, or orders from Cannon and the special master she appointed, a federal judge, Raymond J. Dearie of Brooklyn. But listed between all those official court documents are at least a dozen filings from others including Cornish — people who have no standing to participate formally in the case through legal filings but are nonetheless permitted by the U.S. legal system to submit documents that become part of the court record.

They are law school dropouts, self-appointed political pundits or ambitiously litigious Americans, all seeking to make their way onto one of the most high-profile dockets in the country. They submit often bombastic and rambling missives, hoping that Cannon will read them and take their free-of-charge legal advice. In some cases, they have been threatened in response by others who have taken an interest in the case.

Together, the filings highlight the intense interest among people of all political leanings in the investigation into the potential mishandling of classified information at Mar-a-Lago, while also providing a glimpse into a quirky corner of American court proceedings. It happens even in the country’s highest court. On Monday, the satirical faux news website the Onion filed a briefing in a Supreme Court free-speech case about a man who spent four days in jail after he made fun of his local police department on Facebook.

“I found what is being done in this case rather offensive,” Cornish, a Vietnam veteran and retired meteorologist who frequently writes letters to judges, said in an interview about why he weighed in with Cannon. “And the notion that there are those out there that seem to sanction that, just simply weighed on me, and I thought, let me write her a letter.”

In a high-profile case such as the Mar-a-Lago investigation, in which the Justice Department is probing the possible mishandling of classified information and the possible hiding, tampering with or destruction of government records, these passionate but mostly meaningless filings can attract legions of readers.

In Trump White House, classified records were routinely mishandled, aides say

Each day, journalists, lawyers and Trump document investigation die-hards scour the Trump documents docket on Pacer, an electronic service that catalogues federal court documents, searching for any new submissions. For 40 cents, anyone with a Pacer account can download the letter Cornish wrote to the judge — even if they landed on it accidentally in the hope that it was a document from Cannon or participating lawyers that would advance the case.

“Cheers to you, sir, for inserting your best, most curmudgeonly snark into this national moment — I dig it,” an anonymous user wrote about Cornish on Reddit in a discussion about the hodgepodge of people submitting filings to the Trump docket.

In theory, anyone with time and a little cash can try to add their filings to a court docket, said Steve Vladeck, a University of Texas law professor. Rules often vary by judges, but if people adhere to court procedures, they can submit their musings. Some file their documents as appeals or as letters to the judge, but Vladeck said that because those people are not parties to the case, their filings are all considered “friend of the court letters.”

Lawyers can be disciplined for filing frivolous lawsuits, so the people who file letters to judges are typically not lawyers. And the larger the federal courts are, the more likely they are to accept these extra filings, according to Vladeck, since these courts typically have legal clerks and more staffers to help sift through the submissions.

Trump and the Mar-a-Lago documents: A timeline

Vladeck argued a case in the Supreme Court a few years ago about a fatal cross-border shooting of a Mexican teenager by a U.S. Border Patrol agent that also drew filings from a number of people not involved in the litigation. Vladeck said that he read all the submissions but that they did not change how he viewed or approached any aspect of the case.

“If John Smith sends a letter to the Supreme Court tomorrow about a pending case, chances are that letter will be reflected on the docket — and that doesn’t necessarily mean anything,” Vladeck said. “When it comes to President Trump, everything increases by a factor of insanity.”

Cornish said he did not realize that his letter to Cannon would be publicly viewable. He was just hoping to persuade the judge to be tougher on Trump, he said. Since submitting the letter, he said, he has received more than a dozen threats from people who found his cellphone number listed on his filing.

Raj K. Patel, 30, who has filed multiple documents to Cannon’s docket, said in an interview that he filed a “motion for intervention,” writing that “the present civil action contains a lawsuit against the United States to determine whether executive Privilege was violated by a former President of the United States.”

Trump’s lawyer refused his request in February to say all documents had been returned

Patel also wrote that he wants to be president someday and therefore has great interest in knowing if these executive privileges extend beyond a president’s term in office.

In the Trump documents case, Patel said he submits the filings in person because he thinks it gives him a better chance of them landing on the docket — a potentially pricey obstacle, since he lives in Indianapolis. To hand-deliver them, Patel mailed his filings to someone in Florida whom he hired online through the app TaskRabbit to file the documents with a clerk in the federal courthouse in West Palm Beach. The total cost so far? Around $500, he said.

“I think President Trump should have been making the arguments that I am making,” said Patel, who says he attended law school for two years and has multiple lawsuits making their way through federal courts. “I want to make sure that future litigants and President Trump have the Constitution govern this debate instead of politics.”

When Cannon ruled that she would appoint a third-party special master to sort through the 11,000 seized documents, four people wrote letters urging the judge to select them for the high-profile job.

Special masters and Trump’s Mar-a-Lago documents: What you need to know

“My requirements, as I quickly muster the courage to submit this motion, include a Military Motorcade (Triple Canopy or National Guard) to safely transition me from Nevada to the case files, with an intermediary stop in Massachusetts to pick up my things,” wrote one special master hopeful who said he has a PhD in philosophy.

Cannon did not select any of the volunteers, instead picking Dearie, a longtime federal judge whom Trump’s lawyers and the Justice Department agreed was a suitable choice for special master.

Merril Hirsh, the executive director of an association of special masters, said his group is working to make the special master process more transparent and accessible by creating public rosters of qualified special masters listed with their areas of expertise.

But would he encourage aspiring special masters to write a public letter to a judge making their case?

“It’s not the way you would think an experienced lawyer would do it,” Hirsh said. “Would you do your PhD thesis in crayon? You wouldn’t stop someone from doing it, but you can’t imagine it’s a real good way to do it.”