Trump case assigned to judge who faced criticism

Special counsel Jack Smith, center, leaves after speaking to reporters, Friday, June 9, 2023, in Washington. Former President Donald Trump is facing 37 felony charges related to the mishandling of classified documents according to an indictment unsealed on Friday. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)
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Associated Press

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) — The historic federal criminal case against former President Donald Trump has been assigned to a judge he appointed who faced blistering criticism over her decision to grant his request for an independent arbiter to review documents obtained during an FBI search of his Florida estate.

A person familiar with the development confirmed Friday that the case was assigned to Judge Aileen Cannon, a former federal prosecutor who was nominated to the bench by Trump in 2020 and sits in Fort Pierce, about an hour’s drive north of Trump’s Mar-a-Lago residence.

The indictment makes Trump the first former president in U.S. history to be charged with federal crimes. Trump said he has been ordered to appear in court in Miami on Tuesday.

Trump is facing 37 felony counts related to the mishandling of classified documents, according to an indictment unsealed Friday that alleges that he improperly shared a Pentagon “plan of attack” and a classified map related to a military operation.

Cannon was thrust into the spotlight last year when she issued what many legal experts saw as an extraordinary and unusually broad decision to appoint a “special master” to review the documents seized by the FBI.

As part of that case, Cannon temporarily barred federal agents and prosecutors from reviewing a batch of classified documents seized during the search. Her order was ultimately thrown out in a scathing opinion by a federal appeals court, which found she had overstepped.

Trump’s supporters had cheered her ruling as a check on what they viewed as a politically motivated probe. His lawyers had argued that a special master was necessary to ensure an independent review of records taken during the search and so that any personal information or documents could be filtered out and returned to Trump.

But some experts said the judge gave undue deference to the former president and unnecessarily put on hold certain investigative work by the Justice Department.

Under federal law, if prosecutors reasonably believe Cannon cannot be fair, they could file an affidavit asking that Cannon recuse herself from the case, arguing that she has a personal bias or prejudice. If she finds the affidavit is “sufficient,” she must step down. She also must step down if it could be argued that her “impartiality might reasonably be questioned” by the parties or the public.

Given the reversal of Cannon’s ruling last year, “there already appears to be a fair ground for disqualification because the public might reasonably question her impartiality, even absent an evidentiary basis for alleging or finding personal bias or prejudice,” said University of Miami law professor Anthony Alfieri, the founding director of its Center for Ethics and Public Service.

Cannon previously worked as an assistant U.S. attorney, mainly out of the federal prosecutors’ office in Fort Pierce, Florida, which is part of the same federal district as Miami but about 130 miles (209 kilometers) to the north. Beginning in 2013, Cannon prosecuted 41 cases as part of the Major Crimes Division, later handling appeals of criminal convictions and sentences.

She has also been a member of the Federalist Society, a conservative legal organization that has championed judges appointed by Trump, including Supreme Court Justices Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett.

Born in Cali, Colombia, in 1981, Cannon came to the United States as a child, ultimately graduating from Duke University in 2003.

One of her cases as a prosecutor involved a defendant in a major $800 million Ponzi scheme who unsuccessfully appealed his numerous fraud convictions to the Atlanta-based 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Her opposing counsel in that case, longtime Miami defense attorney Richard Klugh, described Cannon as “very bright and talented” and fair to the defense.

“I didn’t see anything I could characterize as anything other than good lawyering, and no political bias whatsoever,” Klugh said, adding that he has worked on cases handled by Judge Cannon, although he has not appeared in her courtroom.

“She’s known for affording fair process and hearings. You like somebody who actually hears you out,” he said.

She was asked during her 2020 Senate confirmation process whether she had any discussions with anyone, including people at the White House or the Justice Department, about loyalty to President Trump. In a written response, she replied: “No.”

During her college years, Cannon wrote a series of articles for El Nuevo Herald, a Spanish-language newspaper in southern Florida owned by The Miami Herald. According to a list of articles provided to the Senate Judiciary Committee, Cannon wrote primarily about health- and culture-related topics.

After earning a degree from the University of Michigan in 2007, Cannon clerked for U.S. District Judge Steven M. Colloton on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit. She next worked in private practice in Washington for three years with the prominent international law firm Gibson Dunn & Crutcher.

During her July 2020 confirmation hearing, the then-prosecutor noted that her mother “had to flee the repressive Castro regime in search of freedom and security,” leaving Cuba at the age of 7.

“Thank you for teaching me about the blessing that is this country and the importance of securing the rule of law for generations to come,” Cannon said, addressing her mother.