NPR’s Ailsa Chang speaks with retired federal judge Vaughn Walker about the unusual nature of a special teacher who will be assigned to review documents seized by the FBI at Mar-a-Lago.
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
Former President Trump got his way this time. US District Judge Aileen Cannon has granted his request for a special teacher. Now that person, whoever they are, will review the documents seized by the FBI at Mar-a-Lago last month. The decision means that federal prosecutors, at least for now, will not be able to use those documents in their ongoing investigation into obstruction and mishandling of government secrets. Many of these documents have been classified as top secret. Retired Federal Judge Vaughn Walker is here to explain the meaning of this special teacher ruling. It’s good to talk to you, judge.
VAUGHN WALKER: Hello.
CHAN: Hello. So this decision has received a lot of criticism from former federal prosecutors and law enforcement. And I wonder what you think. Can you tell us why it has been so controversial in some quarters?
WALKER: I think the criticism stems from the fact that it’s very unusual to appoint a special master to review privileged claims. Usually, that is done internally by the Department of Justice. I think another basis for the criticism is that a revision of the privileged claims at this point is unusual. It usually comes much later, when there is a challenge to the Fourth Amendment in the course of a criminal proceeding. And their decision is based, at least in part, on the identity of the person whose premises were searched, namely former President Trump. And that seems to be giving you a process that an ordinary litigant would not normally have.
CHANG: Okay. Well let me ask you about that article because Judge Cannon was appointed by former President Trump. This is a fact cited by many who criticize the ruling. Is it fair to point out that she was appointed by Trump?
WALKER: No, I don’t think that’s a fair criticism. He comes to the bench with very good credentials. She has strong academic credentials. She was with a prominent law firm. She has tax experience. Many judges rule in a way that presidents or senators who were instrumental in the nomination or appointment process do not like. And judges do that all the time. So I don’t think that’s a fair basis for criticism.
CHANG: As an active judge, you reviewed classified government documents in some of your previous cases. The Justice Department has said that some of this information in this ongoing seizure at Mar-a-Lago was so highly classified that some of the agents working on the case had to receive special clearance. Does that make it more difficult to find a special master who can access that level of classified information?
WALKER: The answer to that is yes, and it would almost certainly have to be someone who, at least in the past, has passed that review process. I had to do that in the telecommunications national security cases. It’s a cumbersome process, and finding someone authorized to review those documents will take some time.
CHANG: Well, as this whole process goes on, what kinds of things will you personally monitor to get a sense of whether the involvement of a special teacher is working?
WALKER: Well, I think there are a couple of things to keep in mind, and that is, for the identity of the special master, it has to be someone who has essentially no ties to former President Trump or any current relationship with the Justice Department. Second, as you know, the Justice Department tries to avoid filing indictments and procedural matters any time close to an election for fear that it might affect the outcome of an election. And we are here about 60 days from the midterm elections. So I think a very sensible time limit is to inform the special teacher that the special teacher’s report needs to be completed before those mid-term elections.
CHANG: This is retired federal judge Vaughn Walker talking to us about another federal judge’s decision to grant special authorization to review documents seized from former President Trump’s home in Florida. Thank you very much, judge.
WALKER: Well, thank you.
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