Eleventh Circuit Holds District Court Lacked Equitable Jurisdiction to Make the Government’s Use of Documents Seized from Former President Trump Subject to Special Master Review

In Trump v. United States, No. 22-13005 (11th Cir. Dec. 2, 2022), the Eleventh Circuit vacates and orders dismissal of a proceeding brought by the former president in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida to block the FBI’s use of documents seized from his personal residence, holding that the court lacked equitable jurisdiction to interfere with the government’s investigation.

“Former President Donald J. Trump brought a civil action seeking an injunction against the government after it executed a search warrant at his Mar-a-Lago residence. He argues that a court-mandated special master review process is necessary because the government’s Privilege Review Team protocols were inadequate, because various seized documents are protected by executive or attorney-client privilege, because he could have declassified documents or designated them as personal rather than presidential records, and—if all that fails—because the government’s appeal was procedurally deficient. The government disagrees with each contention.”

The panel describes the anomalous nature of the former president’s action. It was “styled as a ‘Motion For Judicial Oversight And Additional Relief.’ The motion asked the court to (1) appoint a special master; (2) enjoin review of the seized materials until a special master was appointed; (3) require the United States to supply a more detailed list of the items seized; and (4) order the United States to return any item seized that was not within the scope of the search warrant. The motion was a civil filing and did not explain how the district court had jurisdiction to act on all of its requests. It did, however, claim to be a precursor to an eventual motion under Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 41(g).”

Shortly after the filing, “the district court issued an order declaring ‘its preliminary intent to appoint a special master’ and requiring the government to provide Plaintiff with a more detailed list of seized items. The court stated that it had jurisdiction pursuant to the court’s ‘inherent authority’ and Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 53(b)(1), which reads: ‘Before appointing a master, the court must give the parties notice and an opportunity to be heard. Any party may suggest candidates for appointment.’” In a later order, the court cited “equitable jurisdiction and inherent supervisory authority” as authority.

The Eleventh Circuit holds “the district court lacked jurisdiction to consider Plaintiff’s initial motion or to issue any orders in response to it.” The panel begins by noting that “[o]nly the narrowest of circumstances permit a district court to invoke equitable jurisdiction.” Injunctions of criminal investigations are not one of those “circumstances.”

“To avoid unnecessary interference with the executive branch’s criminal enforcement authority—while also offering relief in rare instances where a gross constitutional violation would otherwise leave the subject of a search without recourse—this Circuit has developed an exacting test for exercising equitable jurisdiction over suits flowing from the seizure of property. Richey v. Smith [515 F.2d 1239, 1243–44 (5th Cir. 1975).] instructs courts to consider four factors: (1) whether the government displayed a ‘callous disregard’ for the plaintiff’s constitutional rights; (2) ‘whether the plaintiff has an individual interest in and need for the material whose return he seeks’; (3) ‘whether the plaintiff would be irreparably injured by denial of the return of the property’; and (4) ‘whether the plaintiff has an adequate remedy at law for the redress of his grievance.’”

The panel finds that none of the four factors were met here. The district court itself found no evidence of “callous disregard,” a finding that was not challenged by the former president on appeal. While that was enough on its own to vacate the order below, the panel also investigated the other three factors. The plaintiff fatally failed to specify what materials the government supposedly seized that he wanted to be returned. “Courts that have authorized equitable jurisdiction have emphasized the importance of identifying ‘specific’ documents and explaining the harm from their ‘seizure and retention.’”

The district court cited the alleged risk to the former president of the potential “improper disclosure of sensitive information to the public.” The panel observes, though, that “[i]t is not clear whether Plaintiff and the district court mean classified information or information that is sensitive to Plaintiff personally.” Disclosure of classified documents is subject to criminal sanctions and any leak “would be properly characterized as a harm to the United States and its citizens—not as a personal injury to Plaintiff.” As far as personal documents, the panel underscores that the documents were seized by lawful process and the former president’s claim to privacy is no different from any subject of a criminal investigation. “Plaintiff’s argument would apply to nearly every subject of a search warrant,” and if accepted would markedly expand judicial power to interfere with criminal proceedings.

The former president also failed to prove that he lacked an adequate remedy at law. “The real question that guides our analysis is this—adequate remedy for what? . . . . If there has been no constitutional violation—much less a serious one—then there is no harm to be remediated in the first place. This factor also weighs against exercising equitable jurisdiction.”

“Only one possible justification for equitable jurisdiction remains: that Plaintiff is a former President of the United States. It is indeed extraordinary for a warrant to be executed at the home of a former president—but not in a way that affects our legal analysis or otherwise gives the judiciary license to interfere in an ongoing investigation. The Richey test has been in place for nearly fifty years; its limits apply no matter who the government is investigating.”

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