Judge Aileen Cannon, who appointed special master in Donald Trump case, lives in Vero Beach

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FORT PIERCE —  When U.S. District Judge Aileen M. Cannon sentenced two criminal defendants who appeared before her last week at the federal courthouse in Fort Pierce, it was a day on the bench much like most she’s spent during the past two years since being appointed by former president Donald Trump.

In Cannon’s courtroom, there was no sign that the soft-spoken Colombian-born former federal prosecutor has seen her profile catapult nationwide after being thrust into the center of the legal tempest surrounding the FBI search Aug. 8 of Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach.

Her Sept. 5 ruling granting Trump’s request for an independent arbiter to review documents obtained during the FBI search, was easily the most consequential move of her career. She also ordered the Justice Department to suspend its criminal investigation during the review.

It placed her at the center of a simmering legal debate about the confines of executive privilege and presidential power.

The Justice Department appealed part of her order, arguing its criminal investigation of about 100 classified documents recovered at Trump’s property should continue and shouldn’t be part of a review by U.S. District Judge Raymond Dearie, appointed as a special master.

The complicated legal wrangling has now involved four venues of federal court: The Supreme Court, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, Cannon’s court and Dearie’s court in Brooklyn, New York.

Appointed to the bench shortly before Trump lost his 2020 reelection, Cannon, 41, has been the least senior federal judge for the U.S. Southern District of Florida, where five of the 16 active judges were appointed by Trump.

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A resident of Vero Beach, where she lives with her husband and two children in an oceanfront gated community, Cannon is the only U.S. district judge assigned to the Alto Lee Adams, Sr. U. S. Courthouse in Fort Pierce, the northernmost outpost of the South Florida district that includes West Palm Beach, Fort Lauderdale and Miami.

Federal courthouse in Fort Pierce
Federal courthouse in Fort Pierce

In her Senate application, Cannon wrote that since 2019, she’s belonged to The Moorings Yacht and Country Club, on Orchid Island.

‘Measured and fair’

During an Oct. 7 sentencing, Cannon presented a calm, polite demeanor in addressing attorneys, clerks and security officers in a wood-paneled courtroom with high ceilings as she ordered a 44-year-old Lakeland man to spend nearly 11 years in prison for two drug distribution convictions.

Lance Ratterree was convicted with two other men accused of trafficking methamphetamine that federal officials said led to the seizure of about 10 kilograms of methamphetamine and 26 firearms.

While Ratterree’s Fort Lauderdale lawyer Robert “Bob” Stickney, argued for a sentence of about eight years, Cannon sided more with a federal prosecutor who sought nearly 12 years.

Still, after court, Stickney, who said it was his first case before Cannon, lauded her judicial disposition.

“Judge Cannon is thoughtful, thorough, measured and fair in executing her duties as a judge,” he said. “No experienced lawyer can ask for anything more.”

Aileen M Cannon
Aileen M Cannon

Later that day, Cannon seemed empathetic toward a Honduran man convicted of illegally reentering the country after being deported in 2015. She sentenced Wilman Espinoza-Erazo to the 4 ½ months he’d been incarcerated since his June arrest, meaning he would be spared prison but still faced deportation.

When Cannon saw Espinoza-Erazo appeared close to tears before he addressed her, she ordered a short break.

“I came to this country running from the gangs … it is thanks to this country I have my life,” he told Cannon through a Spanish interpreter. “There’s a 90% chance I am going to die in Honduras.”

After ordering his punishment, which included surrendering to immigration officials, Cannon noted his uncertain future.

“God bless you sir,” she said. “I wish you peace and security as you go forward.”

Court rulings panned

Cannon has faced sharp criticism following her decision in favor of Trump to appoint Dearie as special master to review documents, which included secret and top-secret records, and temporarily ceased the Justice Department's criminal probe.

The move was cheered by Trump supporters seeking a check on the government’s probe. But others have said Cannon gave undue deference to the former president.

Trump’s former attorney general, William Barr, told Fox News Cannon’s Sept. 5 opinion was “deeply flawed in a number of ways.”

“The opinion, I think, was wrong,” Barr said on Fox News. “I think the government should appeal it.”

A page from the order by U.S. District Judge Aileen Cannon naming Raymond Dearie as special master to serve as an independent arbiter and to review records seized during the FBI search of former President Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate, is photographed Thursday, Sept. 15, 2022. (AP Photo/Jon Elswick) ORG XMIT: DCJE394
A page from the order by U.S. District Judge Aileen Cannon naming Raymond Dearie as special master to serve as an independent arbiter and to review records seized during the FBI search of former President Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate, is photographed Thursday, Sept. 15, 2022. (AP Photo/Jon Elswick) ORG XMIT: DCJE394

Her order was appealed and on Sept. 21, a three-judge appeals panel blocked a narrow part of Cannon’s decision by ruling that criminal investigators could continue to review – and would not have to turn over to Dearie – about 100 documents marked as classified.

On Oct. 11, the Justice Department urged the Supreme Court not to grant an Oct. 3 emergency request filed by Trump’s lawyers to review the appeals court ruling.

Two days later, the Supreme Court on Thursday, without explaining its reasoning, denied Trump's emergency appeal. There were no noted dissents.

In a brief filed Friday with the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, the Justice Department officially appealed Cannon's appointment of a special master to review documents seized from Trump’s Palm Beach estate.

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As criticism over Cannon’s decisions plays out on social media, cable TV shows and in national newspapers, it’s unclear if the backlash has led to potential threats against Cannon’s safety.

The U.S. Marshals Service won’t discuss security measures taken on her behalf, either at the courthouse or away from work.

Brady McCarron, a U.S. Marshal deputy chief of public affairs, declined to say what’s being done to safeguard Cannon since Trump’s case was randomly assigned to her.

“The U.S. Marshals are responsible for the protection of the federal judicial process, and we take that responsibility very seriously,” McCarron said via email. “While we do not discuss our specific security measures, we continuously review the measures in place and take appropriate steps to provide protection as necessary to ensure the integrity of the federal judicial process.”

Legal career

Cannon’s ascent to the judiciary was quick. When she was recommended by Florida Republican U.S. Sens. Marco Rubio and Rick Scott, she had been a lawyer for just 12 years.

Born in Cali, Colombia, in 1981, as her father, Michael Cannon, worked in advertising throughout South and Latin America, Aileen Cannon came to the United States as a child, ultimately graduating from Duke University in 2003.

During her college years, Cannon wrote a series of articles for El Nuevo Herald, a Spanish-language newspaper owned by the Miami Herald.  After earning a law degree from the University of Michigan in 2007, Cannon clerked for U.S. District Judge Steven M. Colloton on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit in Des Moines, Iowa. She next worked in private practice in Washington for three years with prominent international law firm Gibson Dunn & Crutcher.

In 2008, she married Josh Lorence during a ceremony in Coconut Grove. Lorence is an executive at Bobby's Burgers, a restaurant chain owned by celebrity chef Bobby Flay, according to the New York Times.

During Cannon’s roughly seven years as a federal prosecutor, she worked mainly in Fort Pierce.  Beginning in 2013, Cannon prosecuted 41 cases as part of the Major Crimes Division, later handling appeals of criminal convictions and sentences.

Since 2005, Cannon has been a member of the Federalist Society, a conservative legal organization that has championed judges appointed by Trump, including Supreme Court Justices Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett.

During her July 2020 confirmation hearing, the then-prosecutor noted that her mother “had to flee the repressive Castro regime in search of freedom and security,” leaving Cuba at the age of 7.

“Thank you for teaching me about the blessing that is this country and the importance of securing the rule of law for generations to come,” Cannon said, addressing her mother, Mercedes Cubas, of Miami.

As a U.S. district judge, Cannon presides over civil and criminal cases, including:

  • August 2021: The Town of Indian River Shores filed an anti-trust lawsuit against Vero Beach seeking to nullify a 1989 agreement outlining water-service boundaries between Vero Beach and Indian River County. A trial is scheduled for January, records show.

  • April 4: Paul Hoeffer, 60, sentenced to 18 months' prison after pleading guilty to charges related to making obscenity-laced death threats against U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and two other top Democratic women.

  • July 11: Former Sewall's Point police officer Juan Antonio Garcia, 31, was ordered to spend nearly 26 years in prison for charges related to using his cell phone to solicit sex from a teenage boy he’d befriended.

  • July 25: Michael Adam Carmody, 29, of Fort Pierce, was sentenced to 25 years in prison in a child pornography case. He also was ordered to serve a lifetime of supervision after pleading guilty to three felonies.

  • July 27: A jury exonerated St. Lucie County Sheriff Ken Mascara and the deputy who in 2014 fatally shot Gregory Hill Jr, 30, inside the garage of his Fort Pierce home. Hill was shot as deputies responded to a loud music complaint.

Palm Beach Post staff writer Jane Musgrave and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Melissa E. Holsman is the legal affairs reporter for TCPalm and Treasure Coast Newspapers, and is writer and co-host of Uncertain Terms, a true crime podcast. Reach her at melissa.holsman@tcpalm.com.

This article originally appeared on Treasure Coast Newspapers: Federal judge Aileen Cannon at center of Donald Trump legal debate