Judge Cannon rejects for now Trump's motion to dismiss classified documents charges for 'unconstitutional vagueness' of statute underlying charges

 March 15, 2024

Former President Donald Trump and his attorneys were in a South Florida courtroom on Thursday for a hearing on two previously filed motions to dismiss the criminal charges pressed by Special Counsel Jack Smith in Trump's federal classified documents case.

Unfortunately for Trump, U.S. District Judge Aileen Cannon tossed out one of those motions, which argued the charges should be dismissed for "unconstitutional vagueness," according to The Hill.

Judge Cannon has yet to rule on the other motion addressed during Thursday's hearing, that the charges should be dismissed based on Trump's authority to declassify documents under the Presidential Records Act, nor has she made decisions on the remainder of the nine total dismissal motions that Trump's attorneys have filed on the docket.

The "unconstitutional vagueness" of the underlying statute

On Feb. 22, former President Trump's attorneys filed a 20-page motion to dismiss counts 1-32 of the charges against him based on the "unconstitutional vagueness" of the underlying federal statute.

At issue is the language used in 18 U.S.C. § 793(e), which stated in the relevant part, "Whoever having unauthorized possession of, access to, or control over any document ... relating to the national defense, or information relating to the national defense which information the possessor has reason to believe could be used to the injury of the United States or to the advantage of any foreign nation, willfully communicates, delivers, transmits or causes ... or attempts ... the same to any person not entitled to receive it, or willfully retains the same and fails to deliver it to the officer or employee of the United States entitled to receive it," violates the law and is subject to punishment.

The motion called attention to the vagueness and disputed meanings of the statutory phrases "unauthorized possession," "relating to the national defense," "entitled to receive," and "willfully," and as such argued that the court should dismiss the charges based on the statute under the judicial "vagueness doctrine" and "Rule of Lenity" that generally favors a defendant when laws are ambiguous or unclear.

Judge reportedly "skeptical" during Thursday's hearing

The Hill reported that during Thursday's hearing, Judge Cannon seemed skeptical of the arguments put forward by former President Trump's attorneys about the vagueness of the statutory language and even went so far as to say at one point that it would be "quite an extraordinary step" for her to strike down that law on vagueness grounds.

That response came after Trump's attorney Emil Bove told the judge that "The court’s obligation is to strike the statute and say, 'Congress, get it right.'"

She did, however, make it a point to question prosecutors over why no other former president has ever been charged under that statute despite numerous examples of others also mishandling classified materials, though prosecutors countered by insisting that there had never been any other situations that were even "remotely similar to this one."

Motion denied without prejudice

In the end, Judge Cannon decided to rule against the "unconstitutional vagueness" dismissal motion, though she notably did so "without prejudice," meaning former President Trump's attorneys can raise the issue again at a later point in the proceedings.

In her two-page order, the judge wrote, "Defendant Trump seeks dismissal of Counts 1 through 32 of the Superseding Indictment on the ground that the statutory phrases 'unauthorized possession,' 'relating to the national defense,' and 'entitled to receive' appearing in 18 U.S.C. § 793(e) are unconstitutionally vague as applied under the facts presented, in violation of due process and the rule of lenity."

"Although the Motion raises various arguments warranting serious consideration, the Court ultimately determines, following lengthy oral argument, that resolution of the overall question presented depends too greatly on contested instructional questions about still-fluctuating definitions of statutory terms/phrases as charged, along with at least some disputed factual issues as raised in the Motion," she continued.

Cannon concluded, "For that reason, rather than prematurely decide now whether application of 18 U.S.C. § 793(e) in these circumstances yields unsalvageable vagueness despite the asserted judicial glosses, the Court elects to deny the Motion without prejudice, to be raised as appropriate in connection with jury-instruction briefing and/or other appropriate motions."

It remains unknown at this point how the judge will rule on all of the rest of Trump's dismissal motions, which according to the docket include claims under the Presidential Records Act, presidential immunity, the unlawful appointment of Special Counsel Smith, and selective or vindictive prosecution -- all of which are opposed by the special counsel.

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