Judge in Trump’s classified documents trial was privately urged to pass on case

Judge Aileen Cannon was urged by two more experienced jurists to pass on classified documents case after she was assigned to it in June last year

Gustaf Kilander
Washington DC
Thursday 20 June 2024 22:29 BST
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The judge in former President Donald Trump’s classified documents case, Aileen Cannon, declined private requests from two federal judges that she step aside from the case after she was assigned to it last year.

The two more experienced South Florida judges told Cannon it would be best if she passed the case on to one of their colleagues, but she ultimately ignored that suggestion and chose to remain in charge of the proceedings, according to The New York Times.

The judges, one of whom is Southern District of Florida Chief Judge Cecilia Altonago, approached Cannon after she was assigned the case last June. Cannon’s assignment prompted concerns regarding her limited trial experience and how she had previously intervened in the Department of Justice investigation that ultimately led to Trump’s indictment. A three-judge panel decided that Cannon lacked the legal authority to intervene in that criminal probe, reversing an order that prevented prosecutors from viewing classified records seized at Mar-a-Lago.

Lawyers who work in the Southern District of Florida have said that Cannon has broken with general practice to delegate some pretrial motions in the documents case to a magistrate, according to the Times. In this case, that would be Judge Bruce Reinhart, who’s subordinate to Cannon but has more experience. Reinhart signed off on the 2022 FBI raid on Mar-a-Lago to recover classified documents from Trump’s residence and private club.

Aileen Cannon was urged not to take the classified documents case
Aileen Cannon was urged not to take the classified documents case (via REUTERS)

Cannon has since appeared combative against prosecutors, been slow to take care of pretrial motions and put the trial on hold despite both sides indicating they could be ready to begin proceedings this summer.

Trump’s legal team has also pushed her to postpone the trial until after the election in November — an effort that will likely be successful given her handling of the case. If he becomes president again, Trump could order the Department of Justice to end it all together.

The clerk of the district court told the Times that judges don’t comment on pending cases.

Critics have argued that Cannon may have taken on more than she can handle, that she is supportive of Trump, or both.

As a judge appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate, Cannon has life tenure and does not have to take on the advice of more experienced jurists.

The second judge who spoke to Cannon was not identified by the sources who spoke to the Times about the efforts to get her to hand over the case. One of the sources said the initial judge to reach out to Cannon did so over the phone, telling her that it would be better for a jurist based closer to the district’s Miami courthouse to take charge of the case. The grand jury that indicted Trump was based in the city.

The Miami courthouse had a facility to house classified documents at the time. Judge Cannon is the only federal judge in the courthouse in Fort Pierce, about two hours north of Miami, which didn’t have a classified documents facility when the case was assigned to her. A Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility, or SCIF, has since been constructed there.

Altonaga called Cannon after the first conversation failed to persuade her to hand over the case. The George W Bush nominee reportedly told Cannon that it would look bad for her to be in charge of the trial because of what occurred during the investigation that prompted Trump’s indictment. The former president was charged with unlawfully holding on to national security information after leaving the White House and obstructing the government’s attempts to get the documents back.

During the 2022 FBI search of Mar-a-Lago, agents found thousands of files, including more than 100 marked classified. Trump then filed a lawsuit pushing back against the confiscation of the documents, which he argued were private property. He asked for a special master to be appointed to review the materials.

Normal procedure would have been to allow Reinhart to rule on the lawsuit, but Cannon chose to handle it herself. To the surprise of legal observers on the left and right, she stopped investigators from seeing the evidence and appointed a special master, adding that the special master would only make recommendations to her.

After prosecutors appealed, a panel of three judges reversed Cannon’s ruling, finding that she didn’t have the legal power to step in. Trump’s attorneys appealed all the way to the Supreme Court, which declined to hear the case. Judge Cannon dismissed the lawsuit in December of 2022.

Trump was indicted by the grand jury six months later. The fresh case went into a system that would assign it randomly to a judge, the district clerk told the Times. It was at that point that it ended up in Cannon’s hands.

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