The Supreme Court handed former President Donald Trump a loss Thursday in his dispute with the Justice Department over documents seized from his Mar-a-Lago residence, rejecting his request that a special master be allowed to review classified papers.
The justices denied Trump’s relatively narrow emergency request in a brief unsigned order. No dissents were noted.
The decision does not affect the Justice Department’s access to the same documents as part of a criminal investigation. The more than 100 documents marked as classified are just a small part of the 11,000 records federal agents seized in August amid concerns that Trump had unlawfully retained official White House records after he left office.
The high court left in place part of a Sept. 21 decision by the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that barred the special master, federal Judge Raymond Dearie, from reviewing the documents. Trump had not contested the separate part of that ruling allowing the Justice Department to use the documents.
The appeals court said that certain documents are deemed classified because they include information that could harm the national security and that for that reason people may have access to them only if they need to know the information.
Trump’s lawyers had said the decision to block Dearie's access “impairs substantially the ongoing, time-sensitive work of the special master.” They argued that "any limit on the comprehensive and transparent review of materials seized in the extraordinary raid of a president’s home erodes public confidence in our system of justice."
Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar, on behalf of the Justice Department, said in court papers that Trump would suffer “no harm at all” if the documents were temporarily withheld from the special master. Addressing Trump’s potential ownership stake in the documents, including possible assertions of attorney-client privilege or executive privilege, Prelogar said Trump had “no plausible claims.”
Trump sued the government after the August search of his estate in Palm Beach, Florida, seeking to prevent the government from using the documents as part of a criminal investigation and asking for the appointment of a special master to review the documents.
Under federal law, official White House papers are federal property and must be handed over to the National Archives when a president leaves office. Trump says he did nothing improper and wants Dearie to determine the status of documents marked classified. Trump himself has said he had the power to declassify documents at will, although whether they are classified is a separate question from the legality of his holding on to presidential records.
Although the Supreme Court has a 6-3 conservative majority, including three justices he appointed, Trump has not recently fared well in other such emergency applications, including his attempt to prevent White House documents from being handed over to the House committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol and his bid to avoid disclosure of his financial records to prosecutors in New York.