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Federal judge appoints special master to review documents seized at Mar-a-Lago

The judge also denied the Justice Department’s request for continued access to classified documents for use in its ongoing criminal investigation.
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A federal judge appointed a special master to review documents the FBI seized from former President Donald Trump's Florida estate while denying the Justice Department continued access to roughly 100 classified documents for use in its criminal investigation.

In an order Thursday, U.S. District Judge Aileen Cannon named Raymond J. Dearie, a senior U.S. district judge for the Eastern District of New York, to review all of the materials seized on Aug. 8. The Trump team had proposed Dearie, and Justice officials had previously signaled its approval for him as a potential arbiter to determine if any of the documents are protected by attorney-client or executive privileges.

The Justice Department had asked for a stay of the judge's previous motion so it could continue to review the seized documents for use in a criminal investigation. Cannon denied that request, saying she isn’t prepared to accept all of the department's assertions at face value without the special master review process. 

“The Court does not find it appropriate to accept the Government’s conclusions on these important and disputed issues without further review by a neutral third party in an expedited and orderly fashion,” Cannon wrote in the Thursday evening ruling. 

The Justice Department had argued that the Sept. 5 order impeded the intelligence community’s review of any national security risks posed by improper storage of the documents.

Cannon on Thursday, however, insisted that her order didn't restrict the government from continuing to review the seized materials for intelligence classification and national security assessments or from briefing members of Congress.

The order, she said, blocked the government "from further use of the content of the seized materials for criminal investigative purposes," such as presenting the materials to a grand jury and using them for witness interviews for a criminal investigation pending Dearie's recommendations. 

The government is likely to challenge Thursday’s decision. The Justice Department said in a court filing last week that it would appeal Cannon’s previous order to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Documents seized at Mar-a-Lago recently.
Documents seized at Mar-a-Lago recently.U.S. District Court, Southern District of Florida, West Palm Beach Division

Dearie, a former federal judge nominated by President Ronald Reagan, was among a pair of candidates recommended by Trump's legal team for the role of special master. The Justice Department, which had proposed two candidates of its own, later approved of Dearie for the role.

Cannon laid out the duties of the special master to include conducting a "privilege review" of the documents and checking them against the property inventory, as well as making recommendations about personal items, documents and presidential records that might be under dispute between the parties.

Cannon said the special master would also be responsible for evaluating any claims about the return of property.

The judge set a deadline of Nov. 30 for Dearie to conclude his review and classifications.