U.S. District Judge Aileen M. Cannon shot into the spotlight on Monday after granting former President Trump’s request for an independent mediator to examine materials the FBI recovered during a search at his Mar-a-Lago residence last month.
Cannon, who was appointed by Trump in 2020, made the divisive decision after hearing arguments from the ex-president’s lawyers, who pushed for the special master, and attorneys from the Department of Justice (DOJ), who said the former president’s claims of privilege were unwarranted.
She ultimately ordered that a special master be appointed to determine what seized materials are protected by attorney-client and executive privilege. The ruling also directed the DOJ to temporarily stop using the retrieved materials for “investigative purposes” in an effort to “uphold the value of the special master review” — effectively pausing the department’s investigation.
Cannon, who sits on the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida, is now tasked with choosing a special master to sift through the more than 11,000 documents and asked both sides to provide a list of possible contenders for the job by Friday. The DOJ, however, can still appeal the ruling.
Here are five things to know about Cannon.
Trump appointed, bipartisan approved
Trump nominated Cannon to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida in April 2020. At the time, she was an assistant U.S. attorney in the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Florida, working in the criminal division of the appellate section.
The Senate confirmed Cannon on Nov. 12, five days after major networks called the 2020 election for President Biden, in a bipartisan 56-21 vote. Twelve Democrats supported her appointment, and 23 senators did not vote.
During her confirmation process, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) asked if she had “any discussions with anyone — including, but not limited to, individuals at the White House, at the Justice Department, or any outside groups — about loyalty to President Trump.”
Cannon responded “no” in writing.
Member of the Federalist Society
Cannon has been a member of the Federalist Society since 2005, according to a judicial nominee questionnaire she submitted to the Senate Judiciary Committee in April 2020. The group is made up of conservative and libertarian lawyers, law students and scholars.
Cannon said she joined the Federalist Society when she was a student at the University of Michigan Law School. She was asked during her confirmation process about why she joined the group.
“I did so because I enjoyed the diversity of legal viewpoints discussed at Federalist Society meetings and events,” Cannon responded in writing.
“I also found interesting the organization’s discussions about the constitutional separation of powers, the rule of law, and the limited role of the judiciary to say what the law is—not to make the law,” she added.
Six of the nine justices currently sitting on the Supreme Court — all of whom were nominated by Republican presidents — are members of the Federalist Society, in addition to a number of GOP senators.
Cannon ruled in the Pelosi, Ocasio-Cortez threats case
Cannon is not new to presiding over high-profile litigation. In April, the federal judge sentenced a man to 18 months in prison for making threats against Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.).
Paul Hoeffer, 60, pleaded guilty in February to interstate transmission of threats to injure and admitted to threatening to kill the two congresswomen in March 2019 and November 2020. He also threatened a district attorney in Illinois.
But the 18-month sentence from Cannon was significantly shorter than the 3 1/2 years of prison time prosecutors had asked for. And it was more than a year shorter than the minimum punishment under federal sentencing guidelines, according to The Palm Beach Post.
Hoeffer’s legal team requested a shorter sentence because their client was diagnosed with cancer.
Cannon had signaled support for a special master
Cannon’s ruling did not come as a total surprise — the judge days earlier said it was her “preliminary intent” to install a special master to sift through documents seized from Mar-a-Lago.
“The court hereby provides notice of its preliminary intent to appoint a special master in this case,” Cannon wrote in a court filing on Aug. 27, before either side presented their arguments at a hearing.
The New York Times called the pre-argument signal “unusual.”
In that same filing, she also scheduled a hearing to take place at a federal courthouse in West Palm Beach, rather than the location in Fort Pierce, Fla., where she usually conducts business, according to the Times.
From Colombia to the Southern District of Florida
Cannon — who was born in 1981 in Colombia — made a number of stops in the legal world before landing at the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida.
After receiving a bachelor of arts degree from Duke University in 2003 and earning her juris doctor from the University of Michigan Law School in 2007, Cannon began clerking for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit in Des Moines, Iowa, where she worked for a year. The bench was Republican-appointed, according to the Times.
She then moved to Washington, D.C., to be an associate attorney at the corporate law firm Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP, where she worked for three years, before taking a job as an assistant U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Florida.