Friday, September 09, 2022

While I Can't Claim Any Special Mastery of the Legalities Here ...

... I'm not sure I agree with the opinion pieces I'm seeing decrying a judge's ruling in favor of a "special master" to assess the documents seized in the FBI's raid on disgraced former president Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago residence.

Most such pieces seem to rely on an opinion that the ruling puts Trump "above the law," but so far as I can tell, no, it doesn't inherently do that. If the special master's purview was limited to looking for documents that would compromise attorney-client privilege, it would be, in my view, perfectly legitimate (an express disclaimer in addition to the implicit one in the title -- I am not an attorney or legal expert).

Here's the thing: The investigators are inherently allied with the prospective prosecution. In terms of incentives, letting them use their own "taint team" to decide what's privileged and what isn't would be the equivalent of letting police departments investigate themselves when one of their cops shoots someone. They're going to be inclined to favor their guys, not the other guys.

So a truly independent "special master" with no investment in the outcome of the case makes sense. He or she can look for documents that reflect confidential attorney-client communications that the prosecution just shouldn't see, or even know about.

A second major objection I'm seeing is that the ruling includes having the special master look for documents that might enjoy "executive privilege."

That objection is entirely correct. The US Department of Justice is part of the executive branch, and since it answers to the executive, there's no reason for a wall between it and information which that executive might direct it to not introduce as evidence, etc. That's an internal executive branch matter. Donald Trump is not the executive, and as such enjoys no "executive privilege."

The third objection that seems to be in the air is that appointing a "special master" would slow down the investigation.

Well, tough. If this matter is about "justice" rather than, say, the midterm elections, then the wheels of "justice" grinding slowly is a feature, not a bug. Getting it right, not getting it fast, should be the goal.

So while I think the ruling should be overturned with respect to the "executive privilege" garbage (and that any documents covered under the Presidential Records Act should be returned to the National Archives, not to Trump, if the special master deems them fruit of the poisoned tree for some reason), A special master makes sense for the attorney-client privilege matter.

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