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Special master

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In the law of the United States, a special master is an official appointed by a judge to ensure judicial orders are followed, or in the alternative, to hear evidence on behalf of the judge and make recommendations to the judge as to the disposition of a matter. The special master should not be confused with the traditional common law concept of a master, a judge of the High Court entrusted to deal with summary and administrative matters falling short of a full trial.

In the federal judiciary of the United States, a special master is an adjunct to a federal court. Rule 53 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure allows a federal court to appoint a special master, with the consent of the parties, to conduct proceedings and report to the Court.[1]


The role of the special master, who is frequently but not necessarily an attorney, is to supervise those falling under the order of the court to ensure that the court order is being followed and to report on the activities of the entity being supervised in a timely matter to the judge or the judge's designated representatives. Special masters have been controversial in some cases, and are cited by critics as an example of judicial overreach. For example, special masters have at times ordered the expenditure of funds over and above the amount appropriated by a legislative body for the remediation of the situation being examined. Their powers have generally been found to be valid and their remedies upheld by US courts.

The US Supreme Court will normally assign original jurisdiction disputes (cases such as disputes between states that are first heard at the Supreme Court level) to a special master to conduct what amounts to a trial: the taking of evidence and a ruling. The Supreme Court can then assess the master's ruling much as a normal appeals court would, rather than conduct the trial itself. That is necessary as trials in the US almost always involve live testimony, and it would be too unwieldy for nine justices to rule on evidentiary objections in real time.

In United States federal courts, special masters are appointed under Rule 53[1] of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Rule 53 allows for a special master to be appointed only if one of the following exists: (1) the parties consent to the appointment, (2) to hold a trial without a jury or make recommended findings of fact where there is some exceptional condition or accounting or difficult computation of damages, or (3) address pre-trial or post-trial matters that cannot be effectively and timely addressed by a judge or magistrate judge.


Trump v. United States[edit]

On August 22, 2022, in the wake of the FBI search of Mar-a-Lago, the residence of former US President Donald Trump, Trump demanded the appointment of a "neutral" special master to review the highly sensitive documents seized during the execution of the search warrant for potential attorney–client privilege. Federal District Court judge Aileen Cannon, before whom the matter was set to be argued, expressed she was likely to agree.[6] On September 5, 2022 Cannon granted the request,[7] which was appealed by the Department of Justice on September 8, on the grounds that "[this] order would irreparably harm the government and the public by unnecessarily requiring the government to share highly classified materials with a special master".[8][9][10][11]

On September 12, the DOJ approved one of Trump's nominees, Raymond J. Dearie, for the special master role.[12] On September 15 Cannon appointed Dearie, a move which prompted general outrage from legal experts, who called both the ruling and Cannon's evident partiality "a stupid and profoundly partisan piece of work".[13][14] Dearie's objectivity in this case was also questioned by news reports about the controversial role of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, of which Dearie was a member, during the FBI surveillance of Carter Page in the Crossfire Hurricane affair; according to insider sources, Trump's lawyers and advisers have purportedly expressed hope that Dearie has since become "a deep skeptic of the FBI".[15][16]

However, soon after Dearie's appointment, frictions ensued when Trump's legal team did not provide any proof of Trump's actually having declassified the documents, as he has repeatedly claimed to justify their presence at Mar-a-Lago, despite Dearie's requests.[17] Instead, Dearie declared that if the Justice Department made "an acceptable case that they remain classified, then he would be inclined to regard them as classified" and thus not eligible for returning them to Trump's possession.[18][19][20][21] Likewise, Dearie demanded proof of Trump's false claims that certain documents were "planted" by the FBI during the raid.[22] Legal experts believed Trump's demand for a special master was a strategic error, according to The New York Times.[23]

On September 29, Cannon ruled that Trump allegedly did not have to present evidence to the claim that the FBI had "planted" evidence against him, claiming, "There shall be no separate requirement on Plaintiff at this stage, prior to the review of any of the seized materials. … The Court’s Appointment Order did not contemplate that obligation," and extended the deadline for the files' review from November 30 to December 16,[24][25] drawing widespread criticism from legal experts.[26] Additionally, Trump complained through his legal team that Dearie was "exceeding his authority" with his demand.[27]

On October 8, 2022, The New York Times reported that Trump had told advisers he retained the documents found by the FBI at Mar-a-Lago with the intention of pressuring the National Archives and Records Administration into trading them for files he thought would prove his claims that any Russian interference during the election was a "hoax".[28] On October 14, the DOJ filed a request with a federal appeals court to end the special master review, calling it "unwarranted" since "[the] plaintiff has no plausible claim of executive privilege [...] and no plausible claim of personal attorney-client privilege".[29][30] Dearie himself also expressed a similar assessment.[31]

On December 1, 2022, the federal appeals court reversed the special master review, stating in a clear rebuke against Trump, "The law is clear. We cannot write a rule that allows any subject of a search warrant to block government investigations after the execution of the warrant. Nor can we write a rule that allows only former presidents to do so."[32][33][34]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b "Rule 53". Cornell. Retrieved January 6, 2015.
  2. ^ "Academy of Court Appointed Masters |". www.courtappointedmasters.org.
  3. ^ "Federal Special Master Law by David R. Cohen". Federal Special Master Law and Court Monitor.
  4. ^ Associated Press (January 31, 1998). "Microsoft Appeals Appointment of 'Special Master'". New York Times. Retrieved December 29, 2021.
  5. ^ Case 3:17-cv-00939-WHA Document 2396. "Report of the special master regarding the Jacobs materials".
  6. ^ Feuer, Alan; Haberman, Maggie (August 27, 2022). "Judge Signals Intent to Appoint Special Master in Mar-a-Lago Search". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Archived from the original on August 27, 2022.
  7. ^ "Judge Grants Trump Team's Review Of Seized Mar-A-Lago Docs". HuffPost. September 5, 2022. Retrieved September 5, 2022.
  8. ^ Savage, Charlie; Feuer, Alan; Thrush, Glenn; Haberman, Maggie (September 9, 2022). "Justice Dept. and Trump Legal Team Clash Over Special Master Candidates - The two sides had sharply diverging views of who could serve as a special master and what that person would do". The New York Times. Archived from the original on September 10, 2022. Retrieved September 10, 2022.
  9. ^ Jefferson, Andrea (September 8, 2022). "Trump Throws Giant Hissy Fit After DOJ Appeals Special Master Ruling in Trump Mar-a-Lago Probe". Political Flare. Retrieved September 9, 2022.
  10. ^ Tucker, Eric (September 8, 2022). "DOJ Appeals Appointment Of Special Master To Review Mar-a-Lago Docs". HuffPost. Retrieved September 9, 2022.
  11. ^ Badash, David (September 8, 2022). "DOJ appeals Trump judge's special master ruling: 'Irreparably harm the government and the public'". The Raw Story. Retrieved September 9, 2022.
  12. ^ Anthony, Carl (September 12, 2022). "DOJ Approves One Of Trump's Picks For Special Master". Daily Boulder. Retrieved September 13, 2022.
  13. ^ Brigham, Bob (September 15, 2022). "Florida judge appoints Trump's pick for special master: report". The Raw Story. Retrieved September 16, 2022.
  14. ^ Chapman, Matthew (September 15, 2022). "'Terrible ruling': Experts call Trump judge a 'partisan hack' after special master decision". The Raw Story. Retrieved September 16, 2022.
  15. ^ Swan, Jonathan; Cal, Sophia (September 18, 2022). "Scoop: Team Trump sees special master as deep FBI skeptic". Axios. Retrieved September 19, 2022.
  16. ^ Burris, Sarah K. (September 18, 2022). "Trump lawyers are hoping their hand-picked special master hates the FBI after Carter Page warrant problems: report". The Raw Story. Retrieved September 19, 2022.
  17. ^ Miciak, Jason (September 20, 2022). "Trump's Lawyers ALREADY Opposing Special Master Request for Evidence (Special Master HE Chose)". Political Flare. Retrieved September 21, 2022.
  18. ^ Feuer, Alan; Savage, Charlie (September 20, 2022). "Special Master Expresses Skepticism of Declassification Claims by Trump's Lawyers - The former president insists he shouldn't have to state in a legal proceeding that he declassified the documents, while casting doubt on their status". The New York Times. Archived from the original on September 21, 2022. Retrieved September 21, 2022.
  19. ^ Stein, Perry; Barrett, Devlin; Jacob, Shayna (September 20, 2022). "Special master prods Trump lawyers: 'You can't have your cake and eat it' - Donald Trump's attorneys joust with Judge Raymond Dearie on classification question, access to Mar-a-Lago documents". The Washington Post. Archived from the original on September 21, 2022. Retrieved September 21, 2022.
  20. ^ Tucker, Eric; Sisak, Michael R. (September 20, 2022). "Arbiter In Trump Docs Probe Signals Intent To Move Quickly". HuffPost. Retrieved September 21, 2022.
  21. ^ Miciak, Jason (September 22, 2022). "Handpicked Judge Tells Team Trump: Prove the Files Were Declassified Immediately or They Go Straight to DOJ". Political Flare. Retrieved September 23, 2022.
  22. ^ Papenfuss, Mary (September 22, 2022). "Special Master Calls Out Lawyers On Trump's Claim That FBI 'Planted' Mar-A-Lago Records". HuffPost. Retrieved September 24, 2022.
  23. ^ Savage, Charlie (September 28, 2022). "'Giant Backfire': Trump's Demand for Special Master Is Looking Like a Mistake - The former president failed to derail the criminal investigation into his hoarding of sensitive documents and is stuck paying for a costly process that threatens to undermine his public claims". The New York Times. Archived from the original on September 29, 2022. Retrieved September 29, 2022.
  24. ^ Anthony, Carl (September 29, 2022). "Judge Cannon Rules Trump Doesn't Have Obey Special Master's Order To Back His Claim That FBI Planted Evidence During Raid". Daily Boulder. Retrieved September 30, 2022.
  25. ^ Sneed, Tierney; Polanz, Katerie (September 29, 2022). "Judge bails Trump out of special master plan that would have forced uncomfortable submissions in court". CNN. Retrieved September 30, 2022.
  26. ^ Anthony, Carl (September 30, 2022). "'Something Is So Off': Legal Experts Stunned After Judge Cannon's Latest Pro-Trump Ruling". Daily Boulder. Retrieved September 30, 2022.
  27. ^ Hamilton, Megan (September 29, 2022). "Trump Whines Special Master is 'Exceeding His Authority' by Asking for Evidence to Back Up His Claims". Political Flare. Retrieved September 30, 2022.
  28. ^ Haberman, Maggie; Smith, Michael S. (October 8, 2022). "How Trump Deflected Demands for Documents, Enmeshing Aides". The New York Times. Retrieved October 9, 2022.
  29. ^ Tucker, Eric (October 14, 2022). "Justice Dept. Seeks End To Special Master Review Of Trump Docs". HuffPost. Retrieved October 15, 2022.
  30. ^ Stein, Perry (October 14, 2022). "Justice Dept. asks appeals court to end Mar-a-Lago special master - Prosecutors said the unclassified documents seized at Mar-a-Lago also are critical to their classified-documents investigation". The Washington Post. Archived from the original on October 15, 2022. Retrieved October 14, 2022.
  31. ^ Anthony, Carl (October 19, 2022). "'It's a Little Perplexing': Special Master Throws Cold Water On Trump's Claim Of 'Executive Privilege'". Daily Boulder. Retrieved October 19, 2022.
  32. ^ Sneed, Tierney (December 1, 2022). "Appeals court halts special master review of documents seized at Mar-a-Lago in major defeat for Trump". CNN. Retrieved December 2, 2022.
  33. ^ Tucker, Eric (December 1, 2022). "Federal Court Halts Mar-a-Lago Special Master Review In Blow To Trump". HuffPost. Retrieved December 2, 2022.
  34. ^ Chapman, Matthew (December 1, 2022). "Appeals court stops special master review of Mar-a-Lago documents — dealing huge blow to Trump". Raw Story. Retrieved December 2, 2022.

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