What is a Special Master: Protecting sensitive & privileged documents.

May 12, 2023
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As search warrant experts, we often get questions about “Special Masters” and the crucial role they play in search warrant processes. But what exactly does a Special Master do? How is one assigned, and when are they required for the service of a search warrant? In this blog post, we will delve into the world of Special Masters and their role in the legal system, using the case of the government documents seized from Mar-a-Lago as a reference point.

What is a Special Master?

A Special Master is an independent, court-appointed expert who assists in resolving complex disputes or overseeing specific aspects of a case. They may be called upon to review documents, make recommendations, or perform other tasks as directed by the court. Their role is designed to protect sensitive or privileged documents and materials.

When is a Special Master Required?

When a search warrant is issued for documents under the control of attorneys, physicians, psychotherapists or clergy, the court appoints a Special Master to accompany the peace officer serving the warrant. They are often appointed in cases where there is a need for an unbiased party to review potentially sensitive or privileged documents. This ensures that the rights of the individuals involved are protected and helps maintain the integrity of the legal process.

The Process for Getting a Special Master Assigned

The appointment of a Special Master is at the discretion of the presiding Judge. In some cases, a party involved in a case may request the appointment of a Special Master, as seen in the case of the documents seized from Mar-a-Lago, where Judge Aileen Cannon granted the request for a Special Master.  When a law enforcement officer is investigating attorneys, physicians, psychotherapists or clergy they inform the court of their target’s status.  The Court will often pull from a list of qualified attorneys who have volunteered and appoint them as the Special Master in the investigation.  The Judge and the Special Master agree on the role and specific tasks that will be allowed and the Special Master will formulate a plan and procedure for collecting and reviewing the evidence to be seized.

Role of the Special Master in the Review of Documents

The primary role of a Special Master in the review of documents is to determine which documents are relevant to the case and which are protected by privilege or other legal exemptions. They will carefully review the materials seized during the search warrant execution and make recommendations to the court regarding the admissibility of the documents. This ensures that only pertinent information is used in the legal proceedings while protecting the privacy and rights of the individuals involved.

In digital forensic investigations, the Special Master may assist the Digital Forensic Analyst standing by to watch their work imaging and processing the data.  They may conduct a primary forensic analysis of the devices and produce a limited Cellebrite or Axiom report that is free from protected information and provide that limited document to investigators.  The depth of the Special Masters involvement is a direct relation to how much protected information is located.

A Special Master plays a vital role in the legal system by providing impartial expertise in complex cases and maintaining the integrity of the search warrant process. They ensure that the rights of all parties involved are protected, and their recommendations help courts make informed decisions based on relevant and admissible evidence. The Mar-a-Lago case is just one example of the critical role Special Masters can play in the review of documents seized during a search warrant execution.