WASHINGTON — A federal judge on Thursday appointed a veteran New York jurist to serve as an independent arbiter and review records, including highly classified documents, that were seized during an FBI search of former President Donald Trump’s Florida home last month.
U.S. District Judge Aileen Cannon empowered the newly named special master, Raymond Dearie, to review the entire tranche of records taken in the Aug. 8 search of Mar-a-Lago even though the Justice Department had said the arbiter should not be given access to the roughly 100 documents marked as classified.
In a sharply worded order, Cannon also turned down a Justice Department request to resume its use of the seized classified records in its ongoing criminal investigation into the presence of top-secret documents at the Florida property. Cannon directed the department last week to pause its review of the classified records until further court order or a report from the special master.
The order lays the groundwork for an expected Justice Department challenge to a federal appeals court. The department had given Cannon until Thursday to put her order on hold, and said it would ask the Atlanta-based 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to intervene if she did not do so then.
The Justice Department did not immediately comment on Thursday’s ruling.
Cannon, who last week had granted the Trump team’s request for a special master over the objections of the Justice Department, made clear in her Thursday night order that she was not prepared to blindly accept the government’s characterizations of the documents. She said there were “disputes as to the proper designation of the seized materials” and the “legal implications flowing from those designations.”
“Under these circumstances,” she wrote, “the Court declines to conduct a subset-by-subset, piecemeal analysis of the seized property, based entirely on the Government’s representations about what is contained in a select portion of the property.”
The selection of Dearie, a former federal prosecutor who for years served as the chief judge of the federal court based in Brooklyn, came after both the Justice Department and Trump’s lawyers made clear they would be satisfied with his appointment as a so-called special master.
In that role, Dearie will be responsible for reviewing the entire inventory of documents taken during the search of Mar-a-Lago — the FBI says it recovered more than 11,000 documents from the home during its search, including roughly 100 with classification markings — and segregating out any that may be covered by claims of privilege.
Cannon directed the special master to first review the documents marked as classified, “and thereafter consider prompt adjustments to the Court’s Orders as necessary.” She set a deadline of Nov. 23 for the special master to complete the work.
The Justice Department has been investigating for months the hoarding of top-secret materials and other classified documents at the Florida property after Trump left office. Citing national security concerns, it has said its investigation would be harmed if the judge did not quickly lift her block on the department from continuing to make use of the classified records in its probe.
But Cannon rejected that idea Thursday, saying “there has been no actual suggestion by the Government of any identifiable emergency or imminent disclosure of classified information arising from Plaintiff’s allegedly unlawful retention of the seized property.”
She added, “Instead, and unfortunately, the unwarranted disclosures that float in the background have been leaks to the media after the underlying seizure.”
She also said nothing in her order barred the department from continuing to do other investigative work, such as interviewing witnesses.
Trump’s lawyers had asked last month for a judge to name a special master to do an independent review of the records, segregate any that may be covered by claims of privilege and ensure the return of personal documents.
The Justice Department argued the appointment was unnecessary, saying it had already done its own review and Trump had no right to raise executive privilege claims that ordinarily permit the president to withhold certain information from the public and Congress.
Cannon, a Trump appointee, disagreed and directed both sides to name potential candidates for the role.
The Trump team recommended either Dearie or a Florida lawyer for the job. The Justice Department said that, in addition to the two retired judges whose names it submitted, it would also be satisfied with a Dearie appointment.
Dearie served as the top federal prosecutor for the Eastern District of New York from 1982 to 1986, at which point he was appointed to the federal bench by then-President Ronald Reagan. He has also served on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which authorizes Justice Department wiretap applications in investigations involving suspected agents of a foreign power.
He took senior status in 2011, but the Justice Department has said he remains active and had indicated to officials that he was available for the position and could work expeditiously if appointed to it.