A federal appeals court in the United States has lifted a judge’s hold on the Justice Department’s ability to use classified records seized from former President Donald Trump’s Florida estate, as they evaluate an ongoing criminal investigation into the documents storage at Mar a Lago.
The Atlanta-based 11th US Circuit Court of Appeals granted a request by federal prosecutors to block a lower court’s decision barring them from using the classified documents in their investigation until an independent arbiter, known as a special master, had vetted the materials to weed out any that could be deemed privileged.
The appeals court also said it would agree to reverse a portion of the order that required the government to hand over records with classification markings for the special master’s review.
“We conclude that the United States would suffer irreparable harm from the district court’s restrictions on its access to this narrow—and potentially critical—set of materials, as well as the court’s requirement that the United States submit the classified records to the special master for review,” the three-judge panel wrote.
The court noted that Trump had presented no evidence that he had declassified the sensitive records.
It also rejected the possibility that Trump could have an “individual interest in or need for” the roughly 100 documents marked as classified.
The three judges who made the decision were Robin Rosenbaum, an appointee of Democratic former President Barack Obama, and Britt Grant and Andrew Brasher, both of whom were appointed by Trump.
The ruling amounts to an overwhelming victory for the Justice Department, clearing the way for investigators to continue scrutinising the documents as they consider whether to bring criminal charges over the removal of top-secret records to Mar-a-Lago after Trump lost the presidential election and left the White House.
The decision to remove the hold removes an obstacle that could have delayed the investigation by weeks.
Trump’s lawyers could potentially ask the Supreme Court, whose 6-3 conservative majority includes three justices appointed by the former president, to intervene in the matter.
A Justice Department spokesperson did not have an immediate comment. Trump’s lawyers could not be immediately reached for comment.
Although the appeals court stressed its ruling was narrow in scope, it nevertheless appeared to sharply rebuke Judge Aileen Cannon, who initially agreed to the freeze, and many of Trump’s legal arguments.
“[Trump] has not even attempted to show that he has a need to know the information contained in the classified documents,” the judges wrote. “Nor has he established that the current administration has waived that requirement for these documents.”