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Former federal judge deciphers Aileen Cannon's judicial choices in Trump case

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

Over the coming weeks, federal Judge Aileen Cannon will hold a series of hearings in a Florida courtroom where, at some point in the future, former President Trump may stand trial for a case centered around his alleged possession of classified documents. It's not clear when that may happen because Cannon has delayed the case indefinitely. As it's dragged on, there has been increased scrutiny on Cannon's decisions and non-decisions.

And to better understand what is going on, we called up someone who spent decades in Cannon's shoes, retired federal Judge Shira Scheindlin, who was initially nominated to the bench by President Clinton. I started the conversation by asking Scheindlin what stood out to her about how Judge Cannon has handled this case.

SHIRA SCHEINDLIN: The main thing that stood out to me is how she has constantly caused delay in the case, instead of moving it forward. She's done that in, I would say, two ways. One is her inability to rule in an efficient manner. And most experienced judges - which, of course, I considered myself after the 27 years you mentioned - try to know which motions really require further consideration argument and which you know instinctively you could say, frankly, one word - denied. And you can rule from the bench.

The second thing that stands out to me is what appears to me to be her dislike of the government and her favoritism toward the defense. I'm not saying that that's going to, in the end, determine how she rules on everything. But she seems to have a visceral dislike of Jack Smith and his team. She's constantly criticizing them, and she almost never treats the defense that way, so she's kind of on them, I would say. In writing and orally from the bench, she's always saying sort of negative things, and you can feel it. You feel it in the aura of how she's handled the case.

DETROW: I want to ask about the decision making, the first thing you talked about, because a lot has been said in this trial that's about classified documents, about the fact that, certainly, classified documents cases are going to take longer than other types of cases because there's big, weighted questions that have to be sorted through in terms of the procedure and how things are going to be introduced in the eventual trial. You're saying it's beyond that scope. It's just a lot of basic questions coming her way that she has not answered on that you think is is striking.

SCHEINDLIN: I am saying that. When you have a case that involves highly classified documents, it is more complex to review those documents. They have to be done in a safe space. It's called a skiff. But that's not a full defense of how long it's taking her to move this case forward. It's been done many times. She's just been inefficient.

DETROW: We all know that President Trump's legal strategy involves delaying this case. From everything you've seen, do you have a gut feeling as to whether or not this is an experience issue with Judge Cannon or whether or not this is a finger on the scale to try to help those delays?

SCHEINDLIN: I'm not so sure that those are two different choices. They may be combined in her mind. I think she is inexperienced, and I think it makes her insecure in her rulings. But the motivation may be mixed in with intentionally delaying enough to make sure this doesn't go before the election. I'm not saying there's a bad motive for that. There have been some commentators who say, you know, if he's president and he'll elevate her to a higher court and all that. I don't see that. That would look like a quid pro quo. It would look like a bribe.

But maybe she just says this can wait till after the election. I don't want this to affect the election. So I'm going to take my time. It may be intentional. I don't have a sense of that. But I do have a sense that she's inexperienced and insecure.

DETROW: Do you think a judge in this position should be thinking about the fact that there is an election, and do the American people deserve a verdict before that election, or is that just something that's not material in a criminal courtroom to you?

SCHEINDLIN: I don't think it's material to me. I think you do your job. So when I think of Judge Merchan, I don't think he was trying to rush it to get it done before the election, so the electorate would know whether this guy is a felon or not a felon. And I'm not sure he's intentionally going slow to avoid the public knowing. It's just that one knows how to run a criminal trial because he's experienced and a good, organized judge, and one seems to not.

But that said, you never know what's in the back of somebody's mind. You know, I'm not a psychologist on your show. I'm a former judge. So it's a little hard to know if there's not a mixed motive always. I think it's more a matter of knowing how to run a complex trial.

DETROW: I want to ask you while we had you - a broader question. I'm wondering how worried you are at this moment about the rule of law in this country and the different ways it's being attacked from all directions. You have a former president saying it's a rigged system, it's a political system that that people are trying to charge him with crimes to prevent him from being president. You have a lot of liberal-leaning voters in this country who are deeply cynical about the U.S. Supreme Court. You have a president's son just convicted in another federal courthouse and all sorts of Republican criticism there.

I feel like every direction you're coming from, there are serious, real critiques about the rule of law in this country, right or wrong. And I'm wondering how worried you are, in this country that's based on the rule of law, about all of these partisan criticisms at this moment.

SCHEINDLIN: Well, I think the partisan criticism has affected the public's perception of the liberty of the court system. I think they've lost a lot of faith in this U.S. Supreme Court because of what we - has been disclosed about Justice Alito and Justice Thomas.

DETROW: Sure.

SCHEINDLIN: But that said, the system has actually worked quite well in the sense of the trial on the hush money case. And in the Hunter Biden case, I might not have agreed with either outcome, but the jury system worked and made a decision. And everybody is treated the same. And that's a good thing, whether your last name is Biden or your last name is Trump.

DETROW: That's retired federal Judge Shira Scheindlin. Thank you so much for joining us.

SCHEINDLIN: My pleasure.

DETROW: We reached out to Judge Cannon's office for a response and received a statement from the Southern District of Florida saying its judges do not comment on pending cases. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Detrow
Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.