The Volokh Conspiracy
Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent
This afternoon the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit granted the Department of Justice's request for a partial stay of the lower court order that had temporarily blocked the Department from analyzing and investigating documents seized from former President Donald Trump's residence at Mar-a-Lago.
The 29-page per curiam opinion on behalf of Judges Rosenbaum, Grant, and Brasher thoroughly rejects the bases upon which Judge Cannon had granted Trump's request to block Justice Department access and to appoint a special master. (For those who care about such things, two of the judges were appointed by Trump, and one was appointed by Obama.)
The opinion begins:
Following the execution of a search warrant at the residence of Plaintiff-Appellee, former President Donald J. Trump, Plaintiff moved for the appointment of a special master to review the documents that Defendant-Appellant United States of America seized. The district court granted that motion in substantial part. Now, the United States moves for a partial stay of the district court's order as it relates to the roughly one-hundred documents bearing classification markings. We decide only the narrow question presented: whether the United States has established that it is entitled to a stay of the district court's order, to the extent that it (1) requires the government to submit for the special master's review the documents with classification markings and (2) enjoins the United States from using that subset of documents in a criminal investigation. We conclude that it has.
Among other things, the court explained why former President Trump has no meaningful claim to the documents in question, whether or not (as some have suggested) Trump may have declassified some of the documents.
For our part, we cannot discern why Plaintiff would have an individual interest in or need for any of the one-hundred documents with classification markings. Classified documents are marked to show they are classified, for instance, with their classification level. Classified National Security Information, Exec. Order No. 13,526, § 1.6, 3 C.F.R. 298, 301 (2009 Comp.), reprinted in 50 U.S.C. § 3161 app. at 290–301. They are "owned by, produced by or for, or . . . under the control of the United States Government." Id. § 1.1. And they include information the "unauthorized disclosure [of which] could reasonably be expected to cause identifiable or describable damage to the national security." Id. § 1.4. For this reason, a person may have access to classified information only if, among other requirements, he "has a need-to-know the information." Id. § 4.1(a)(3). This requirement pertains equally to former Presidents, unless the current administration, in its discretion, chooses to waive that requirement. Id. § 4.4(3).
Plaintiff has not even attempted to show that he has a need to know the information contained in the classified documents. Nor has he established that the current administration has waived that requirement for these documents. And even if he had, that, in and of itself, would not explain why Plaintiff has an individual interest in the classified documents.
Plaintiff suggests that he may have declassified these documents when he was President. But the record contains no evidence that any of these records were declassified. And before the special master, Plaintiff resisted providing any evidence that he had declassified any of these documents. See Doc. No. 97 at 2–3., Sept. 19, 2022, letter from James M. Trusty, et al., to Special Master Raymond J. Dearie, at 2–3. In any event, at least for these purposes, the declassification argument is a red herring because declassifying an official document would not change its content or render it personal. So even if we assumed that Plaintiff did declassify some or all of the documents, that would not explain why he has a personal interest in them.
The panel also rejected the claim that the threat of future prosecution could constitute "irreparable harm" for purposes of an injunction.
No doubt the threat of prosecution can weigh heavily on the mind of someone under investigation. But without diminishing the seriousness of that burden, "if the mere threat of prosecution were allowed to constitute irreparable harm . . . every potential defendant could point to the same harm and invoke the equitable powers of the district court." United States v. Search of Law Office, Residence, and Storage Unit Alan Brown, 341 F.3d 404, 415 (5th Cir. 2003) (quotation omitted). If this concern were sufficient to constitute irreparable harm, courts' "exercise of [their] equitable jurisdiction would not be extraordinary, but instead quite ordinary." Id.
Overall, the opinion is quite thorough, and demonstrates why the district court completely bollixed this case.
We will see whether Trump tries to take this to the Supreme Court. I doubt any such filing will produce a different result (and would be quite surprised were the Supreme Court to respond quickly enough to matter).