Democrats cry foul over Judge Cannon’s handling of Trump documents case

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Democrats cry foul over Judge Cannon’s handling of Trump documents case

Senate Democrats are venting their fury over Florida Judge Aileen Cannon’s decision to cancel the start date of former President Trump’s trial for mishandling classified documents, accusing the Trump appointee of “deliberately slow-walking” the case. 

Cannon, who serves on the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida, asserted in a five-page order that too many pretrial issues remain unresolved to schedule a later date to hear arguments from federal prosecutors and Trump’s defense.

The judge’s decision cancels Trump’s May 20 trial date, postponing it indefinitely.

The decision sparked outrage among Senate Democrats, who say Cannon has encumbered the trial by unnecessarily raising complex problems of law. They say she has failed to manage her courtroom efficiently, showing a lack of experience on the bench.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), the chair of the Senate Judiciary panel’s federal courts and oversight subcommittee, said it looks like Cannon is “deliberately slow-walking the case.”

“Judges are responsible for managing their calendars and for seeing to it that issues are addressed timely, so it is hard for me not to reach the conclusion that this [judge] is deliberately slow-walking the case to put it into a position where should [Trump] be elected, he can order that the investigation and prosecution be terminated,” Whitehouse said.

What does it mean for Trump’s charges?

Democrats are close to giving up hope that the 40 felony charges accusing Trump of mishandling classified documents, obstructing justice and making false statements will reach a verdict before Election Day.

And they fear he will immediately kill the case if he defeats President Biden in November and returns to the Oval Office.

“Justice deferred is often justice denied. It is profoundly frustrating that the judge is managing this case in a way that is making it highly unlikely that it will be resolved in a timely fashion,” said Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), a member of the Judiciary Committee.

Senate Democrats are pointing to a series of rulings by Cannon, a longtime member of the Federalist Society whom Trump nominated to the federal bench in 2020, that are unusual and favorable to the former president’s defense.

What has Cannon done?

Special counsel Jack Smith, who is handling the case, complained in a 24-page filing last month that Cannon had issued a “fundamentally flawed” order to file preliminary jury instructions contemplating the possibility that Trump was authorized under the Presidential Records Act to turn classified documents into his personal property.

Smith’s legal team warned that the “adoption of a clearly erroneous jury instruction that entails a high probability of failure of prosecution” would create an “extraordinary situation” and “distort the trial.”  

Cannon made another highly favorable ruling for Trump in September 2022, ordering the appointment of an independent arbiter to review the more than 11,000 documents the FBI seized at Mar-a-Lago before prosecutors could fully review the materials.

These moves are fueling Democrats’ suspicions that Cannon is pushing a political agenda from the bench.

Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) said Cannon bears responsibility for leaving legal questions unresolved for months, delaying the start of the trial.

“Why are they not resolved? Some of it’s because she hasn’t issued decisions on things that have already been briefed for a while,” said Hirono, a member of the Judiciary Committee.

“I don’t think that she’s being objective. I think she has an ideological agenda. I also think that she’s not very experienced in dealing with trials,” she added. “If there’s a way that she can be reassigned, I certainly would support that.”

The court for the Southern District of Florida does not list a phone number for Cannon’s chambers while it does for other judges. A staff member at the court said Cannon would review any complaints submitted to her in writing via the mail.

Other Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee say there’s little chance of removing Cannon from the case unless she voluntarily decides to recuse herself.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) called the lengthy delay “truly unfortunate.”

“There have been questions from the start as to whether or not she was up to the task of handling a complex case like this in a timely manner and even more serious questions as to whether her politics had anything to do with the rulings,” he said.

Who is Judge Cannon?

Cannon, who is 43, graduated from the University of Michigan Law School in 2007 and worked for a corporate law firm before becoming an assistant federal prosecutor in Florida. She had limited trial experience and just met the American Bar Association’s requirement of 12 years of legal practice when she was nominated.

Durbin said Trump is “entitled to his day in court” and “due process” but emphasized “a timely trial is important for the cause of justice.”

The senior Democrat said it’s unlikely Cannon could be removed from the case.

“I don’t think that’s a possibility. My understanding is there would have to be some effort to change venue, and she would be the first judge to rule on that,” he said.

Whitehouse said the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals could intervene but that it would be “quite unusual.”

Sen. Peter Welch (D-Vt.), a member of the Judiciary Committee, said Cannon’s “at it again, doing everything she can to delay.”

He called it “disappointing” but “not surprising.”

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), a member of the Judiciary Committee and former state attorney general, called the cancellation of the start of Trump’s trial “really regretful.”

“It’s denying justice to America,” he said. “I question whether this judge understands the magnitude or the legal import of this trial.”

Blumenthal said Smith could ask Cannon to recuse herself but expressed doubt he would risk adding to the tension with the judge.

“There is a procedure to seek recusal, but I also understand the reluctance of a litigant asking for recusal because it alienates the judge. It’s a classic dilemma for justice that a particular judicial officer may be conducting a trial that could be better done by somebody else,” he said.