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Opinion Distinguished persons of the week: The 11th Circuit renders justice against Trump

The U.S. courthouse for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit in Atlanta. (Mike Stewart/AP)

Rarely does a court demolish an argument as brutally as the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit did on Thursday when it vacated District Judge Aileen Cannon’s appointment of a special master to review classified documents at Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago club. Given Cannon’s ineptitude, the trouncing was entirely warranted.

The Justice Department served its warrant to search Mar-a-Lago with probable cause that the former president snatched the highly classified documents on the way out of office. Trump filed a civil suit to get the documents back, but the 11th Circuit reaffirmed there was zero evidence showing of any “callous disregard” of his rights during the search.

Specially, the 11th Circuit eviscerated Cannon for erroneously plunging ahead to grant relief to Trump through the doctrine of equitable jurisdiction, which requires a showing that his constitutional rights were violated. The three-judge panel wrote, “We have emphasized again and again that equitable jurisdiction exists only in response to the most callous disregard of constitutional rights, and even then only if other factors make it clear that judicial oversight is absolutely necessary.”

In considering the argument from Trump’s attorneys, the panel explained, “We are faced with a choice: 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. So the case must be dismissed.”

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The court also rejected the claim from Trump’s lawyers that a special master was needed to sort out which documents were personal, because “the status of a document as personal or presidential does not alter the authority of the government to seize it under a warrant supported by probable cause.”

In other words, Trump deserves no remedy because he suffered no constitutional violation. Without that, “there is no harm to be remediated in the first place.”

The 11th Circuit took a stab at explaining Cannon’s rationale: “Only one possible justification for equitable jurisdiction remains: that Plaintiff is a former president of the United States.” But that’s not permitted in the U.S. legal system. The court held: “To create a special exception here would defy our Nation’s foundational principle that our law applies ‘to all, without regard to numbers, wealth, or rank.’ ”

In words that should warm the hearts of people who cherish the rule of law, the panel declared, “We cannot write a rule that allows any subject of a search warrant to block government investigations after the execution of the warrant. Nor can we write a rule that allows only former presidents to do so.” The court therefore refused to undertake “a radical reordering of our case law limiting the federal courts’ involvement in criminal investigations” or to violate “bedrock separation-of-powers limitations.”

None of this should have been necessary. Cannon had no basis to entertain Trump’s suit. She either entirely misconstrued clear precedent or decided to take off her robe and put on her MAGA hat for the sake of pleasing the person who nominated her to the federal bench. In doing so, she chewed up time, misused her authority and wasted the taxpayers’ dollars. That two of the three judges on the 11th Circuit’s panel were also nominated by Trump made clear how far off the constitutional path she had strayed.

For preserving the rule of law, revealing Cannon to be utterly incompetent or biased (or both) and rebuffing a lame attempt to disrupt a criminal investigation into a possibly serious felony and security breach, we can say, well done to the 11th Circuit panel.