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Aileen M. Cannon, the Federal District Court judge assigned to preside over former President Donald J. Trump’s classified documents case, has scant experience running criminal trials, calling into question her readiness to handle what is likely to be an extraordinarily complex and high-profile courtroom clash.
Judge Cannon, 42, has been on the bench since November 2020, when Mr. Trump gave her a lifetime appointment shortly after he lost re-election. She had not previously served as any kind of judge, and because about98 percent of federal criminal cases are resolved with plea deals,she has had only a limited opportunity to learn how to preside over a trial.
A Bloomberg Law database lists 224 criminal cases that have been assigned to her, and a New York Times review of those cases identified four that went to trial. Each was a relatively routine matter, like a felon who was charged with illegally possessing a gun. In all, the four cases added up to 14 trial days.
Judge Cannon’s suitability to handle such a high-stakes and high-profile case has already attracted scrutiny amid widespread perceptions that she demonstrated bias in the former president’s favor last year, when she oversaw a long-shot lawsuit filed by Mr. Trump challenging the F.B.I.’s court-approved search of his Florida home and club, Mar-a-Lago.
In that case, she shocked legal experts across the ideological divide by disrupting the investigation — including suggesting that Mr. Trump gets special protections as a former president that any other target of a search warrant would not receive — before a conservative appeals court shut her down, ruling that she never had legitimate legal authority to intervene.
“She’s both an inexperienced judge and a judge who has previously indicated that she thinks the former president is subject to special rules so who knows what she will do with those issues?” said Julie O’Sullivan, a Georgetown University criminal law professor and former federal prosecutor.
In theory, Judge Cannon could step aside on her own for any reason, or the special counsel, Jack Smith, could ask her to do so undera federal lawthat says judges are supposed to recuse themselves if their “impartiality might reasonably be questioned” — and, if she declines, ask an appeals court to order her to recuse.
There is no sign that either of them is considering taking that step, however — or what its legal basis would be.
The appeals court last year found that she was wrong about jurisdiction law, not that she was biased. And judges have previously heard litigation involving presidents who appointed them — including the Trump search warrant lawsuit, in which, notably,two of the three appeals court judges who reversed her intervention were also Trump appointees.
By bringing the charges in Florida, where most of the alleged crimes took place, instead of Washington, where the grand jury that primarily investigated the matter sat, the special counsel, Mr. Smith, avoided a potential fight over whether the case was in the right venue but ran the risk that Judge Cannon could be assigned the case.
But the chances appeared low. Under the Southern District of Florida’s practices, a computer in the clerk’s office assigns new cases randomly among judges who sit in the division where the matter arose or a neighboring one — even if the matter relates to a previous case. Nevertheless, Judge Cannon got it.
The chief clerk of the court hassaid that five active judges were eligible to draw Mr. Trump’s case, and that Judge Cannon’s odds of receiving it were slightly higher than others because half of her cases come from the West Palm Beach division, where Mar-a-Lago is. The clerk has also said normal procedures were followed in making the assignment.
Several lawyers who have appeared before Judge Cannon in run-of-the-mill criminal cases described her in interviews as generally competent and straightforward — and also, in notable contrast to her rulings hobbling the Justice Department after the search, someone who does not otherwise have a reputation of being unusually sympathetic to defendants.
At the same time, they said, she is demonstrably inexperienced and can bristle when her actions are questioned or unexpected issues arise. The lawyers declined to speak publicly because they did not want to be identified criticizing a judge who has a lifetime appointment and before whom they will likely appear again.
Judge Cannon’s four criminal trials identified in the review involved basic charges, including accusations ofpossession of a gun by a felon,assaulting a prosecutor,smuggling undocumented migrantsfrom the Bahamas, andtax fraud. The four matters generated between two and five days of trial each.
The Trump case is likely to raise myriad complexities that would be challenging for any judge — let alone one who will be essentially learning on the job.
There are expected to be fights, for example, over how classified information can be used as evidence under the Classified Information Procedures Act, a national security law that Judge Cannon has apparently never dealt with before.
Defense lawyers are also likely to ask her to suppress as evidence against Mr. Trump notes and testimony from one of his lawyers. While another federal judge already ruled that a grand jury could get otherwise confidential lawyer communications underthe so-called crime-fraud exceptionto attorney-client privilege, Judge Cannon will not be bound by that decision in determining what can be used in trial.
The judge will likely have to vet claims of prosecutorial misconduct put forward by Mr. Trump and his defense team.
“That has already been signaled in a lot of the media statements made by Trump and his lawyers,” Samuel Buell, a Duke University law professor and former federal prosecutor, said of the misconduct claims. “This is very typical, but she is a very inexperienced judge, so even if she weren’t favorable to Trump, she might hear a lot of stuff and think she is hearing stuff that is unusual even though it’s made all the time.”
And the judge will decide on challenges to potential jurors when either side claims someone might be biased for or against one of the most famous and polarizing people in the world.
Fritz Scheller, a longtime defense lawyer in Florida who has had cases in Judge Cannon’s district but not appeared before her, said in complex and high-profile cases, even the most experienced judges are forced to think on their feet to make swift decisions.
In this case, he said, the issue of how to protect the jury from being influenced by the vast media coverage alone “will be a herculean task” for any judge.
In the aftermath of the F.B.I.’sMar-a-Lago search, Judge Cannon repeatedly sided with the man who had appointed her. She blocked investigators from having access to the classified government documents seized from him and entertained an unprecedented legal theory put forward by his lawyers that White House records could be kept from the Justice Department in a criminal investigation on the basis of executive privilege.
Eventually, a conservative appeals court panel — including two other Trump appointees —reversed her, writing in a pair of scathing opinions that she had misread the law and had no jurisdiction to interfere in the investigation. The Supreme Courtlet those rebukes standwithout comment, and she acquiesced, dismissing the lawsuit.
It remains to be seen what she will take from the reputational damage she brought upon herself at the start of what is likely to be many decades on the bench. She could continue her pattern from last year, or she could use her second turn in the spotlight to adjudicate the documents case more evenhandedly.
While Mr. Trump and his White House lawyers put forward many young conservatives to fill judicial vacancies when he was president, Judge Cannon was unusually young and inexperienced. She was 38 years old and working on appellate matters as an assistant United States attorney in Florida when Mr. Trump nominated her for a lifetime appointment, and little about her legal résumé up to that point was remarkable.
Still, the Senate majority leader at the time, Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky, pushed through her confirmation vote in the lame-duck session after the election. Her nomination received little attention and did not draw particular fire from Democrats; she was confirmed 56 to 21, with 12 Democrats joining 44 Republicans to vote in favor.
The daughter of a Cuban exile, she grew up in Miami and graduated from Duke University and the University of Michigan Law School. She was identifiable as ideologically conservative, having joined the Federalist Society in law school and clerked for a conservative appeals court judge.
She had been approached by the office of Senator Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida, and asked to apply to a panel he uses to vet potential judicial candidates, she wrote on herSenate Judiciary Committee questionnaire. She also interviewed with a lawyer for Senator Rick Scott, Republican of Florida, before talking to the White House, she wrote.
(The Senate’s “blue slip” practice empowers senators to block confirmation proceedings for nominees from their states, so senators wield significant power over who the White House nominates. There are currently three vacant seats on the Federal District Court in South Florida for which President Biden has made no nomination, suggesting that Mr. Rubio and Mr. Scott have not agreed to let him fill those seats with anyone acceptable to a Democratic White House.)
Judge Cannon had graduated from law school in 2008, and her 12 years as a lawyer were the minimum the American Bar Association considers necessary for a judicial nominee. Asubstantial majority of the bar association’s vetting panel deemed her to be merely “qualified,”though a minority deemed her “highly qualified.”
Her criminal trial experience before becoming a judge was limited.
In 2004, when she was working as a paralegal at the Justice Department’s civil rights division before going to law school, she had “assisted federal prosecutors in two federal criminal jury trials,” she wrote on the questionnaire.
From 2009 to 2012, she was an associate at the law firm Gibson Dunn, where she worked on regulatory proceedings, not criminal matters. (She wrote that she participated in two administrative trials before agencies like the Securities and Exchange Commission.)
From 2013 to 2020, she was an assistant United States attorney in Florida. While most of that time was spent on appellate work, until 2015 she had worked in the major crimes division on “a wide range of federal firearms, narcotics, fraud and immigration offenses” that resulted in the conviction of 41 defendants, she wrote. Most of those cases, however, ended in plea deals: She tried just four of them to a jury verdict, she wrote.
She was the lead counsel for two of those cases — both involving a felon charged with possessing a firearm, she wrote, and served as assistant to the main prosecutor in the other two cases, one of which she said involved possession of images of child sexual exploitation.
Other parts of Judge Cannon’s questionnaire answers put forward few experiences or accomplishments that clearly distinguished her as seasoned and demonstrably ready for the powers and responsibilities of a lifetime appointment to be a federal judge.
It asked, for example, for every published writing she had produced. She listed 20 items. Of those, 17 were pieces she had written in the summer of 2002 as a college intern at The Miami Herald’s Spanish-language sister publication, El Nuevo Herald, with headlines like “Winners in the Library Quest Competition.” The other three were articles published on Gibson Dunn’s website describing cases the firm had handled, each of which had three other co-authors.
The questionnaire also asked her to provide all reports, memorandums and policy statements she had written for any organization, all testimony or official statements on public or legal policy she had ever delivered to any public body, and all her speeches, talks, panel discussions, lectures or question-and-answer sessions.
“None,” she wrote.
Kitty Bennett, Susan C. Beachy and Matthew Cullen contributed reporting.
Michael S. Schmidt is a Washington correspondent covering national security and federal investigations. He was part of two teams that won Pulitzer Prizes in 2018 — one for reporting on workplace sexual harassment and the other for coverage of President Trump and his campaign’s ties to Russia. @NYTMike
Charlie Savage is a Washington-based national security and legal policy correspondent. A recipient of the Pulitzer Prize, he previously worked at The Boston Globe and The Miami Herald. His most recent book is“Power Wars: The Relentless Rise of Presidential Authority and Secrecy.” @charlie_savage • Facebook
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What did Judge Aileen Cannon do? ›
“I prosecuted 41 defendants to conviction for a wide range of federal firearms, narcotics, fraud and immigration offenses,” Cannon wrote in her judicial questionnaire provided to the U.S. Senate. In two of them, she noted, she served as lead counsel. In two of them, she was associate counsel.Who is the judge for Trump documents? ›
The Judge: Judge Aileen Cannon, a Trump appointee who showed favor to the former president earlier in the investigation, has scant experience running criminal trials.What is the role of the judge in a criminal trial? ›
Judges provide instructions to juries prior to their deliberations and in the case of bench trials, judges must decide the facts of the case and make a ruling. Additionally, judges are also responsible for sentencing convicted criminal defendants. Most cases are heard and settled by a jury.What does the judge say at the end of court? ›
Judge: (After verdict is read) Thank you, Jury, for your service today. Court is adjourned. Any attorney may object to a question asked of a witness on the stand or the admission of an exhibit if s/he feels that it does not follow a rule of evidence.Who is Judge Cannon's husband? ›
Personal life. Cannon married Josh Lorence, a restaurant executive, in 2008. They have two children and live in Vero Beach, Florida, as of 2022.Who is Judge Aileen Cannon's husband? ›
Aileen Cannon entered into matrimony with Josh Lorence in 2008. Josh Lorence is an accomplished restaurant executive, although further details about his specific professional background and current endeavors are not readily available.Who has to confirm a federal judge? ›
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Article III of the Constitution governs the appointment, tenure, and payment of Supreme Court justices, and federal circuit and district judges. These judges, often referred to as “Article III judges,” are nominated by the president and confirmed by the U.S. Senate.
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There's no defined answer, because the decision depends on the nature of the case and the discretion of the judge. For example, on a major case that has taken weeks to try, the court will likely force the jury to deliberate further and will read instructions encouraging them to reach a verdict.What is an example of a judge's conflict of interest? ›
Some of the most common examples of a conflict of interest that would lead an assigned judge to recuse themselves voluntarily include situations in which: They have a familial relationship to one of the attorneys involved in the case. They have a possible financial interest in the result of the case.What should you not say to a judge? ›
Do Not Exaggerate, Mislead, or State Anything Untrue. It goes without saying that you should never lie to a judge (that is perjury), but you should also avoid exaggerating the facts or misleading the court about any issue. Most judges can sense when a witness is stretching the truth, and they do not appreciate it.How do you impress a judge in court? ›
- Know the judge.
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- Stay calm in front of the jury.
- Keep eye contact with the jury.
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The best color to wear to court is probably navy blue or dark gray. These colors suggest seriousness. At the same time, they do not come with the negative connotations that are often associated with the color black (for instance, some people associate black with evil, coldness, and darkness).Who is Judge Kelvin Jones wife? ›
Jones' wife, Denise Jones, is a vice president and legal counsel at the Sarah Cannon Cancer Institute.Who is Judge Hendricks Sebastian County? ›
Annie Powell Hendricks is a Division 2 judge of the Twelfth Circuit Court of Arkansas. She was elected in 2010 and was re-elected in the general election on March 1, 2016.Can anyone overrule a federal judge? ›
Federal judges can only be removed through impeachment by the House of Representatives and conviction in the Senate.What is the rule of 4? ›
The “rule of four” is the Supreme Court's practice of granting a petition for review only if there are at least four votes to do so. The rule is an unwritten internal one; it is not dictated by any law or the Constitution.
Although the Senate is more likely to reject a nominee when the party of the president differs from that of the Senate majority, intraparty disputes have also led the Senate to withhold approval from nominees to the Court.What are the 4 types of cases? ›
- Criminal Cases. Criminal cases involve enforcing public codes of behavior, which are codified in the laws of the state. ...
- Civil Cases. Civil cases involve conflicts between people or institutions such as businesses, typically over money. ...
- Family Cases.
Federal courts generally have exclusive jurisdiction in cases involving (1) the Constitution, (2) violations of federal laws, (3) controversies between states, (4) disputes between parties from different states, (5) suits by or against the federal government, (6) foreign governments and treaties, (7) admiralty and ...How long do federal judges serve? ›
Supreme Court Nominations
The Supreme Court is the Nation's highest court. Eight Associate Justices and one Chief Justice comprise the membership of the Court. Like all Federal judges, Supreme Court Justices serve lifetime appointments on the Court, in accordance with Article III of the United States Constitution.
Federal judges can only be removed through impeachment by the House of Representatives and conviction in the Senate. Judges and justices serve no fixed term — they serve until their death, retirement, or conviction by the Senate.Who has authority over federal judges? ›
They are nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate, pursuant to the Appointments Clause of Article Two of the U.S. Constitution. Article Three of the Constitution gives federal judges life tenure, and they hold their seats until they die, resign, or are removed from office through impeachment.Why do federal judges have so much power? ›
Because so few cases are accepted for review by the Supreme Court, federal appeals court judges wield tremendous power. If the Supreme Court chooses not to hear an appeal, the decision made by the federal appeals court applies to all the states in the circuit.Who has more power over a judge? ›
However, this article is going to let you in on a little-known secret: in the vast majority of cases, the prosecutor has more power over the outcome of a criminal case that the judge.What are common ethical violations of a judge? ›
Public confidence in the judiciary is eroded by irresponsible or improper conduct by judges, including harassment and other inappropriate workplace behavior. A judge must avoid all impropriety and appearance of impropriety. This prohibition applies to both professional and personal conduct.What are the 4 characteristics of a good judge? ›
Theorizing about the good judge posits that a good judge should be knowledgeable about how personality relates to behavior, have high levels of cognitive ability and general intelligence, and be motivated to be accurate, among other characteristics (Funder, 1995; 1999).
Criminal contempt occurs when the contemnor actually interferes with the ability of the court to function properly. For example, by yelling at the judge. This is also called direct contempt because it occurs directly in front of the judge. A criminal contemnor may be fined, jailed, or both as punishment for his act.Who has the final say in a case? ›
The judge makes a decision or the jury gives its verdict, based on the testimony and other evidence presented during trial.What is the first rule of evidence? ›
This undergirding principle of evidentiary law is called the Best Evidence Rule, also referred to as the original writing rule. The foundation of the Best Evidence Rule is that the original writing, recording or photograph is the 'best' way to prove the actual content of the evidence.What is it called when a judge has a conflict of interest? ›
Judicial disqualification, also referred to as recusal, is the act of abstaining from participation in an official action such as a legal proceeding due to a conflict of interest of the presiding court official or administrative officer.What happens when a judge has a conflict of interest? ›
When there is a perceived conflict of interest, a judge can be removed for cause. Under the California Code of Civil Procedure 170.1, a party can try to remove a judge from a case for cause if they believe the judge has a conflict of interest for various reasons.What is a conflict of interest in a criminal case? ›
A conflict of interest refers to the ethical problems that may arise between parties with a preexisting relationship. In law, a conflict of interest arises between an attorney and a client if the interests of the attorney, a different client, or a third-party conflict with the interests of the present client.What annoys judges? ›
- When you put yourself in the argument. ...
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Actions that can be classified as judicial misconduct include: conduct prejudicial to the effective and expeditious administration of the business of the courts (as an extreme example: "falsification of facts" at summary judgment); using the judge's office to obtain special treatment for friends or relatives; accepting ...What is the most difficult part for a judge? ›
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Most courts will accept copies of electronically delivered letters, but be sure to check with the attorney first. Remember that judges read hundreds of letters. The easier you make it for the judge to read, the most likely the judge will be able to focus on the message you are trying to convey.What words to use when talking to a judge? ›
The first rule of speaking to a judge in court is always to address them properly as “Your Honor.” This title does not apply to any other presiding officials who are not, in fact, judges. If you are unsure how to address a court official, use the same language that lawyers and others in the courtroom are using.How do you look trustworthy in court? ›
- Dress the part. If possible, you should dress in business attire for your court appearance. ...
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- Answer the questions directly.
Darker, more serious colors are preferable, and bright colors should be avoided. The best colors to wear to court are “conservative” colors (white, blue, navy, gray, and the like) and to steer clear of crazy patterns and shocking fashion statements.What do you wear to win in court? ›
Dress conservatively and in a respectful manner. Men should have a tucked-in button-down shirt, belt, closed-toe dress shoes, and dark-colored socks. Women should wear slacks and a dress shirt or a skirt and a dress shirt. Don't be too revealing, sexy, or inappropriately dressed.Who is the presiding officer of the US Supreme Court? ›
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As chief administrative officer of the judicial branch of government, the Chief Justice assigns Justices and judges, including retired Justices and judges who consent and are approved by the Court to serve, to duty in courts that require temporary assistance.Can a Supreme Court justice be removed by the president? ›
The Constitution states that Justices "shall hold their Offices during good Behaviour." This means that the Justices hold office as long as they choose and can only be removed from office by impeachment.Has a Supreme Court justice ever been impeached? ›
He is the only U.S. Supreme Court justice to have been impeached. Judge Alexander Pope Humphrey recorded in the Virginia Law Register an account of the impeachment trial and acquittal of Chase.How many votes does it take to impeach a Supreme Court justice? ›
If a majority of the members of the United States House of Representatives vote to impeach, the impeachment is referred to the United States Senate for an impeachment trial. A conviction requires a two-thirds vote in the Senate.
Under the Florida Rules of Criminal Procedure, the trial court may entertain a motion to dismiss at any time if it is based on the ground that there are no issues of material fact and the undisputed facts do not establish a prima facie case of guilt. Fla. R.How long does a judge have to make a decision in Florida? ›
Jury cases — 18 months (filing to final disposition) Non-jury cases — 12 months (filing to final disposition) Small claims — 95 days (filing to final disposition) (C) Domestic Relations. Uncontested — 90 days (filing to final disposition) Contested — 180 days (filing to final disposition) (D) Probate.Can you request a different judge in Florida? ›
The short answer is “yes” if you are asking for the right reasons. Asking a judge to remove him or herself from a case is called a “recusal.”