When U.S. District Judge Aileen M. Cannon issued an order for the appointment of a special master, she instantly became the latest jurist targeted by a furious mob of media and pundits. Rather than simply disagree with her order, these critics attacked Cannon personally and ethically, including lawyers and law professors. It is a familiar pattern but the fury shown in the last two days is chilling for our federal judges who have seen increasing attacks, including an alleged attempted assassination of Justice Brett Kavanaugh. Nevertheless, legal and media figures seemed to rush to outdo each other in the most extreme statements about a judge with a distinguished background.
MSNBC host Joy Reid hosted a frenzy of condemnations of this “corrupt” judge. Reid said that Cannon is little more than an extension of Trump like other possessions stolen by the former president.
As always, MSNBC regular (and columnist for Above the Law and The Nation) Elie Mystal struggled to outdo a panel assembled to attack this jurist:
“She’s biased and corrupt. Like, I don’t know what to tell everybody anymore. Like, I’ve been saying this since he took office. When you allow Republicans to control the courts you get nothing. Trump judges do not believe in the rule of law, they do not believe in precedent, they do not believe in facts, they do not believe in logic—they just believe in whatever’s going to help Donald Trump, and they’ve proven it again and again and again.”
Mystal recently criticized Biden’s controversial MAGA speech because it did not go far enough: in his view all Republicans are white supremacists, not just MAGA Republicans. Now he is claiming that all Trump appointees (even those who have ruled against Trump) “do not believe in the rule of law…do not believe in facts…do not believe in logic.”
MSNBC clearly wants Mystal’s brand of commentary. It recently declined to even express discomfort with launching a racist attack on Georgia’s senatorial candidate Herschel Walker. Mystal previously caused uproars for claims from accusing a senator of wanting to murder Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson to his continued attacks on a high school student even after he was cleared of a false race-based story. He has called the Constitution “trash” and previously stated that white, non-college-educated voters supported Republicans because they care about “using their guns on Black people and getting away with it.” He has also lashed out at “white society” and explained how he strived to maintain a “whiteness free” life in the pandemic.
Mystal, however, has competition on this occasion from AEI’s Neil Ornstein who suggested that Judge Cannon is now engaged in obstruction by simply ordering a third-party review. The over-wrought response to this order is par for the course over the last six years.
Lawyers like former top Obama official Neal Katyal, said that Judge Cannon’s decision appeared designed to “protect their guy” or at the very least, “delay justice.” In other words, Cannon was acting as a political operatives rather than a judge.
Harvard Professor Laurence Tribe declared that an order to appoint a special master to review the documents is analogous to the Dred Scott decision as an abuse of judicial power. Tribe recently said that Trump could clearly be charged with the attempted murder of former Vice President Michael Pence. However, this is both legally and historically unintelligible. Tribe wrote:
“Cannon’s order will go down as part of the judicial anticannon — the body of decisions, like Dred Scott or Korematsu, that lawyers use for generations to teach students how NOT to wield the judicial power.”
Unpack that for a moment. Tribe is analogizing the appointment of a special master to assist the court to a decision declaring former slaves as outside the protection of the Constitution and the definition of a “citizen.” Likewise, he believes it is similar to a decision, Korematsu, where Japanese Americans were put into concentration camps in World War II. One can reasonably disagree with Judge Cannon’s order, but it is designed as a check on government power and abuse. Yet, Tribe believes it is akin to a decision allowing the government carte blanche to imprison Americans based on race or nationality.
Judge Cannon was faced with a breathtakingly broad search that appears to have seized attorney-client material and personal material, including passports and personal medical information. She is allowed to conduct in camera inspections of such documents but elected to appoint a special master to conduct such reviews. While the Justice Department claimed that such an appointment would endanger national security, Judge Cannon correctly rejected that unsupportable claim. The documents will remain under secure controls of the government and the national security investigation will continue unabated.
As I have discussed, there are good-faith objections to the order and it may be curtailed or even overturned on appeal. However, while rare at this stage, special masters are routinely appointed to assist judges in creating a record for further orders. Moreover, the investigation can go forward without the use of the documents in establishing what was known about the contents of the boxes and whether there were acts of concealment.
The attacks on Judge Cannon follow a familiar pattern. It is not enough to disagree with a judge. You must attack the jurists as unethical or corrupt — and standout in your rhetoric. Notably, some of these same experts denounced Trump for attacking jurists as “Obama judges” or ideologues when they ruled against him. Now it appears perfectly acceptable in dealing with Trump appointees. At the time I criticized Trump repeatedly for such attacks. However, Democrats quickly adopted the same rhetoric that they once denounced. Now Judge Cannon is fair game for legal experts to impugn her integrity and ethics.
Just for the record, Judge Cannon has an inspiring and impressive background. She was born in Cali, Columbia and her mother fled the dictatorship of Fidel Castro. Yet, she would graduate from Duke University in 2003 and the University of Michigan in 2007 with a Juris Doctor magna cum laude (and Order of the Coif). She worked at the Justice Department as a prosecutor as well as a leading law firm as well as serving as an appellate judicial clerk.