ATLANTA — A federal appeals court on Wednesday ruled that the Department of Justice can continue to view documents marked as classified that were taken from former President Donald Trump’s residence in South Florida.
The ruling from a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit in Atlanta is a victory for the Justice Department, according to The Associated Press. It allows the agency to immediately resume its use of documents as it decides whether criminal charges should be pursued in its probe of the presence of top-secret government records stored at the Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach after Trump left the White House.
The documents are part of 11,000 items that were seized by the FBI on Aug. 8 after a search warrant was executed.
In their 29-page decision, the panel rejected the arguments by Trump’s attorneys that the classified documents might belong to the former president, instead of to the government, The Washington Post reported. The appeals court also disagreed with the rationale used by U.S. District Court Judge Aileen M. Cannon.
The panel noted that the ruling was a temporary decision, according to the newspaper. Trump’s attorneys can appeal the decision.
“It is self-evident that the public has a strong interest in ensuring that the storage of the classified records did not result in ‘exceptionally grave damage to the national security,’” the panel wrote in its ruling. “Ascertaining that necessarily involves reviewing the documents, determining who had access to them and when, and deciding which (if any) sources or methods are compromised.”
According to The New York Times, the panel consisted of two judges appointed by Trump -- Britt Grant and Andrew L. Brasher -- and Judge Robin S. Rosenbaum, an Obama appointee.
The DOJ argued that the ruling by the district court “likely erred in exercising its jurisdiction to enjoin the United States’ use of the classified records in its criminal investigation and to require the United States to submit the marked classified documents to a special master for review,” the panel wrote. “We agree.”
In a court filing Tuesday, Trump’s attorneys argued that the government had yet to prove that the roughly 100 documents in question were classified at the time that they were seized from the former president’s Florida home. They also noted that the order did not block the government from reviewing the records for intelligence classification and national security assessments.
“For our part, we cannot discern why (Trump) would have an individual interest in or need for any of the 100 documents with classification markings,” the court wrote. “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.”
The FBI seized the documents during a court-authorized search of Mar-a-Lago, according to the AP. It has launched a criminal investigation into whether the records were mishandled or compromised. It is not clear whether Trump or anyone else will be charged.
Earlier this month, Cannon ordered the government to stop reviewing records seized during the Aug. 8 search until a third party had the opportunity to review them for potential executive or attorney-client privilege issues. Authorities asked Cannon to stay the order. The DOJ appealed to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals when Cannon declined.
Cannon also appointed Raymond J. Dearie, a federal judge in New York City, to serve as special master and review the documents seized in the FBI’s search, the Post reported.
If the ruling stands, Dearie will not have to assess the classified material and can focus on the unclassified documents, the Times reported.
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