Spotlight on judge in Trump documents case intensifies following controversial earlier ruling

17 July 2023


MIAMI (AP) — A month after former President Donald Trump was charged with mishandling classified documents, the judge presiding over the case is set to take on a more visible role as she weighs competing requests on a trial date and hears arguments this week on a procedural, but potentially crucial, area of the law.

A pretrial conference Tuesday to discuss procedures for handling classified information will represent the first courtroom arguments in the case before U.S. District Judge Aileen Cannon since Trump was indicted five weeks ago. The arguments could provide insight into how Cannon intends to preside over the case while she also confronts the unresolved question of how to schedule Trump’s trial as he campaigns for president.

Those issues would be closely watched in any trial involving a former president. But Cannon could face additional scrutiny in light of a much-dissected ruling she issued last year that granted the Trump team’s request for a special master to conduct an independent review of the reams of classified records removed by the FBI from his Mar-a-Lago estate. A three-judge federal appeals panel reversed her order, rebuking Cannon for a ruling it said she lacked the legal authority to make in the first place.

Cannon’s ruling, in a lawsuit Trump brought against the Justice Department, elicited criticism from legal experts who saw her as overly preferential to the former president. It also focused public attention on her limited experience as a judge, particularly in hugely sensitive national security matters, given that she was appointed to the bench just three years ago by Trump.

Still, some Florida lawyers say there’s no doubt, as the judge now assigned to Trump’s criminal case, that she’s mindful of the stakes of the most politically explosive federal prosecution in recent memory.

“She is not going to want to do anything but go by the book. The challenge is there has never been a book like this,” said Kendall Coffey, a former U.S. Attorney in Miami who served on the advisory committee that reviewed Cannon’s judicial application. He said he was impressed with her credentials and felt confident she would be able to oversee the case fairly.

“I think she is going to want to be very well-regarded for her judicial leadership of this case,” Coffey said.

Jeffrey Garland, a criminal defense lawyer in Fort Pierce, Florida — where Cannon’s courtroom is based — praised Cannon for her handling of a trial he had before her last year in which he represented a “quite difficult” defendant who’d been charged with throwing a chair at a federal prosecutor.

“She was able to maintain the dignity of the court and courtroom composure, and she was able to express control in ways that were not threatening,” Garland said, adding that he assumed Cannon would be able to do the same in the Trump case. “I think she understands that’s what a federal judge has to do in a case like this. It’s true in any case, but especially in this case.”

Cannon — a Duke University graduate and Colombian-born daughter of a Cuban immigrant — clerked for a U.S. Circuit Court judge and worked as an assistant U.S. attorney in Florida, prosecuting several dozen cases as part of her office’s Major Crimes Division and later handling appeals of convictions and sentences, before being nominated by Trump in 2020. She’s also been a member of the Federalist Society, a conservative legal organization.

Her ruling in the Trump lawsuit last September catapulted her into the spotlight since it effectively halted core aspects of the Justice Department’s investigation into the hoarding of classified documents. In overturning the order, the appeals court said that letting it stand would have allowed a “radical reordering of our caselaw limiting the federal courts’ involvement in criminal investigations.”

As the judge assigned to Trump’s criminal prosecution, she’ll be empowered to issue rulings that could shape the trajectory of the case, including about what evidence can and can’t be admitted and whether to proceed swiftly toward trial or grant the Trump team’s request for a delay.

There have been few matters of substance for Cannon to decide in the month since Trump’s indictment, though she did set a tentative August trial date — a formality under the Speedy Trial Act — in Fort Pierce and rebuffed a Justice Department request to file under seal a list of witness who prosecutors want Trump to be prohibited from discussing the case with.

But major issues lie ahead.

Prosecutors and defense lawyers are at odds over the trial date, a question with significant legal and political implications. The Justice Department has proposed a Dec. 11 trial, while defense lawyers have suggested that it should be put off until after the 2024 presidential election, citing the challenges of scheduling a date while Trump pursues the Republican nomination and legal issues that they say are “extraordinary” and complex.

It is not clear when that issue will be resolved.

Tuesday’s status conference centers on the Classified Information Procedures Act, a 1980 law that governs how classified information is handled in a criminal prosecution and that will likely provide an essential roadmap in this case. The law is meant to balance a defendant’s right to access evidence prosecutors intend to use at trial with the government’s desire to safeguard sensitive, classified information.

Richard Serafini, a Florida criminal defense lawyer and former senior Justice Department official, said he did not necessarily believe Cannon’s lack of experience in that area would be detrimental given the case law and past precedent she and the attorneys can turn to for consultation.

“These things aren’t novel. They’re not everyday occurrences, but it’s not like, ‘Oh, my goodness, there’s no precedent on any of these things,” he said.

Whatever happens, said Coffey, “the eyes of the world are on her. She is in the middle of writing a chapter in history.”


Tucker reported from Washington.

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