What is a special master? Trump's fight against the FBI Mar-a-Lago search

US Department of Justice appeals against appointment of independent overseer's review

The US Department of Justice filed a response arguing against a special master before a hearing about the request. EPA
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Former US president Donald Trump's legal team in August requested that a “special master” be assigned to the case stemming from an FBI search of his home, despite federal challenges and a pending appeal.

The FBI obtained about 20 boxes of documents and materials in an August 8 search for an investigation into whether Mr Trump violated the Espionage Act and other federal laws.

The Department of Justice has filed an appeal against the initial order that approved the assignment of a special master — and the results of that appeal remains to be seen as of late October.

What is a special master? Who is it?

A special master is a third-party individual acting as an independent overseer of an ongoing case.

After Mr Trump's request for a special master, US District Judge Aileen Cannon assigned District Judge Raymond Dearie to the role in early September.

He has to look through more than 11,000 documents the FBI obtained from Mr Trump's Mar-a-Lago home and resort in Palm Beach, Florida.

Mr Dearie is looking at what was seized with a mandate to set aside personal or privileged material, some of which Mr Trump's team has singled out in court filings as part of negotiations over the special master review.

The special master will also work to return those privileged documents that may not fall under the FBI's search warrant.

What about classified documents?

The FBI retrieved about 100 classified documents as part of its court-approved search.

Mr Trump's team wanted Mr Dearie's review to include the classified material, which requires some of the highest levels of national security clearances to view.

In the conclusion of a back-and-forth over the course of several court filings and appeals, the Supreme Court rejected Mr Trump's request and Mr Dearie will not be looking at the sensitive documents.

Where is the case today?

The Department of Justice's filing against Ms Cannon's assignment of a special master is currently in the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, where a decision to vacate her order could effectively end Mr Dearie's entire review.

However, Mr Dearie is continuing with his work that currently has a mid-December deadline.

In a recent court hearing, the special master expressed frustration with Mr Trump's team over the validity of their claims that certain documents are privileged.

Is a special master necessary in this case?

Part of Mr Trump's legal strategy has appeared to include pursuing heavy litigation and challenging cases he is involved in, in an effort to delay them while he considers a possible 2024 presidential run.

Legal experts argue that his team made its request for a special master too late in the process, since such a request would usually take place in the hours or days after a search by law enforcement.

Mr Trump's lawyers filed the request more than two weeks after the Mar-a-Lago search and after the Justice Department had completed its review of the documents with a filter team.

The Department of Justice has maintained that “there is no legal basis for the appointment of a special master” and that “executive privilege clearly does not apply to the seized records”.

It also said “appointment of a special master is unnecessary and would significantly harm important governmental interests, including national security interests”.

Updated: October 28, 2022, 8:06 PM