Who are these ‘special masters,’ and what makes them so special? (2023)





As a federal judge in Florida granted former president Donald Trump’s request for a special master on Monday, Americans could be forgiven for asking a simple question:

A special what?

(Video) Trump's Very Special Master

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The judicial system is famous for its thicket of impenetrable legalese, with terms like “nolo contendere” and “writ of certiorari” befuddling laypeople trying to keep up with courtroom drama. Now we have “special master,” an obscure honorific that has become the focus of unusual attention with U.S. District Judge Aileen M. Cannon’s decision to appoint one to review sensitive documents the FBI seized from Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate in August.

What, exactly, is so special about these special masters? Is that term even appropriate? And what are they masters of, anyway?

“It’s a fancy term for judge’s helper,” said David R. Cohen, a Cleveland-based lawyer who, at the request of various federal judges, has earned a comfortable living over the past two decades as a special master.


As dockets have grown over the years, Cohen said, judges have more frequently turned to these independent arbiters for help overseeing complex civil cases. The duties of a special master include helping to mediate disputes over document requests, drafting court orders and ensuring that those orders are followed.

“Special master work is the epitome of digging into the minutia,” said David Tenner, who is president of an association of special masters. “It’s the kind of minutia that judges typically don’t have time to do.”

(Video) CNN legal analyst explains Trump special master process

Tenner says the work of a special master, much of which he can do at his Denver office, is less taxing than what he did as a trial attorney. Rather than interviewing witnesses and poring over documents as part of the process of building a case, “you’re just listening to what’s being told to you and making the call,” he says. “While other people might find it boring, I think it’s great.”


In one case, he got to dig into the minutiae of ballot machines. In another, he learned a ton about concrete. In another, it was cannabis. “It’s fun, it’s cool,” Tenner says of the work.

The special master in the Trump case faces an imposing task. Whomever the judge appoints for the role “should be someone with security clearance,” says Cohen, the Cleveland-based lawyer. "You want someone with a lot of gravitas. A retired judge, someone who used to be a federal judge.” In her ruling Monday, Cannon, who was nominated by Trump in 2020, ordered the former president’s lawyers and the Justice Department to submit names of possible appointees this week.

Trump’s legal team had contended that a special master is necessary to assess whether certain documents seized by the FBI should be returned to Trump because of attorney-client privilege and executive privilege. Justice Department attorneys argued that a special master would delay the department’s investigation and is unnecessary because its own “filter team” was assessing the documents.


In the end, Cannon ruled that a special master is needed “to ensure at least the appearance of fairness and integrity under the extraordinary circumstances.”

Whoever takes on the role is sure to face a level of notoriety that special masters are not accustomed to.

(Video) 'Huge win': McCabe on Trump's special master ruling

“I’d be afraid of what the consequences of ruling against the president would be,” says Lawrence Lessig, a Harvard Law School professor, referring to Trump. “I’d be wondering what the consequences of my decision would be — not just for the case — but also the people watching the case. The MAGA people.”

Lessig knows from experience that taking on the role of special master can be sticky business. He served as a special master in the Microsoft antitrust case during the late 1990s at the invitation of U.S. District Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson. “It was wonderful because it was an incredibly complicated case,” Lessig, a technology expert, says. But he also says he received “hateful” phone messages and “threatening” letters from the company’s supporters. A federal appeals court eventually removed him from the case after Microsoft opposed his appointment, arguing that he was biased against the company.

As a gesture of goodwill, Lessig said, Microsoft executives eventually invited him to a dinner at its Redmond, Wash., headquarters. “They were trying to be apologetic and say it was all business,” he says, adding that there were no hard feelings. “I took the money I earned and liquidated it into a new Audi.”

So where did all this special master business begin?


In England hundreds of years ago, says Amalia Kessler, a Stanford University Law School professor. By the 15th century, she says, British judges were assigning fact-finding work to clerks who were called masters. In the United States, “We called them ‘special’ because they’re not a group of masters associated with a particular court but appointed on a special basis, case by case,” says Kessler.

The role of special master is known mainly to judges and attorneys who deal in civil litigation. In one particularly well-known case, Congress appointed a special master, Kenneth R. Feinberg, to oversee the claims process for the Sept. 11 Victims Compensation Fund, a role that involved deciding the amount of money each victim’s family would receive. Courts also have assigned special masters to oversee troubled prisons and school districts, and to redraw congressional lines.

Kessler is concerned about the latitude judges are allowed in choosing special masters in their cases. “This is the Wild West of the law. There are no constraints,” she said. “It’s nuts. Why wouldn’t you have some requirements for making sure they’re competent? It seems like a recipe for a huge amount of variability.”


(Video) Attorney explains judge's comments on Trump special master ruling

Merril Hirsh, the executive director of an association of special masters, says there have been discussions within the profession about establishing ways to review qualifications and establish rosters within states of special masters who are qualified for the role.

There have also been discussions about whether the title “master” is appropriate, says Hirsh, given its association with slavery. Similar discussions have occurred in the real estate industry, where some brokers now refer to “master” bedrooms as “primary” bedrooms. In June, Hirsh’s group decided to change its name from the Academy of Court-Appointed Masters to the Academy of Court-Appointed Neutrals.

“No one really likes to have a master except a Saint Bernard,” Hirsh says. “It’s just bad branding. We want to promote this profession, and we don’t want to defend a name that’s a poor description of what we do and some people find inappropriate or insensitive.”

Cohen, a former president of the academy, said he voted against changing the name. The title of special master, he said, “is a nice honorific, it carries just enough prestige. You need to be in a position of authority. It does what it’s supposed to do.”

“Now what am I?” he said of being referred to as a “neutral.” “Sounds like I’ve been neutered.”

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(Video) Grisham: Trump is 'probably yelling' after Mar-a-Lago special master hearing


What is a special master used for? ›

The role of the special master (who is frequently, but not necessarily, an attorney) is to supervise those falling under the order of the court to make sure that the court order is being followed, and to report on the activities of the entity being supervised in a timely matter to the judge or the judge's designated ...

What powers does a special master have? ›

Judges appointed special masters to quell discovery disputes, address technical issues of fact, provide accountings, manage routine Title VII cases, administer class settlements, and implement and monitor consent decrees, including some calling for long-term institu- tional change.

Why would the Supreme court of the United States have to appoint a special master for some cases they consider? ›

Infrequently, attorneys taking a deposition in a distant, non-courthouse, location may anticipate that a witness will refuse to testify, or that some other problem will come up. For good cause shown, judges may appoint a Special Master to appear at the deposition to make evidentiary rulings on the spot.

What is Rule 53? ›

Courtroom Photographing and Broadcasting Prohibited. Except as otherwise provided by a statute or these rules, the court must not permit the taking of photographs in the courtroom during judicial proceedings or the broadcasting of judicial proceedings from the courtroom.

Why are special masters appointed? ›

A special master is appointed by a judge to oversee one or more aspects of litigation. They may be appointed pre-trial, during trial, or post-trial. Judges appoint special masters for a variety of reasons. These masters are almost always attorneys.

Are special masters programs worth it? ›

Not only do these programs allow students to increase their knowledge of a field by taking relevant graduate and professional level courses, but they can also help bolster other professional school application requirements, such as GPA, research, and clinical experience.

Who qualifies as a special master? ›

Special Masters must be licensees of the State Bar for at least five years. Special Master appointments are not limited to one year. To avoid potential conflicts of interest, attorneys closely involved in the criminal law field are not eligible to serve as Special Masters.

Is a special master a mediator? ›

The duties of a special master include helping to mediate disputes over document requests, drafting court orders and ensuring that those orders are followed.

What is the role of a master in court? ›

The Master of the Supreme Court is an officer of the Court, junior to judges, with partly judicial and partly administrative responsibilities.

What is the purpose of U.S. special courts? ›

U.S. Courts of Special Jurisdiction

This court has nationwide jurisdiction over most claims against the United States. This court offers a forum for taxpayers to dispute a tax deficiency determined by the Commissioner of the I.R.S. This court also has jurisdiction over a variety of other (tax/worker) cases.

What is the Supreme Court and why are they special? ›

First, as the highest court in the land, it is the court of last resort for those looking for justice. Second, due to its power of judicial review, it plays an essential role in ensuring that each branch of government recognizes the limits of its own power.

What are the three special powers of the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court? ›


Supreme Court Building, Washington, D.C. The chief justice has significant influence in the selection of cases for review, presides when oral arguments are held, and leads the discussion of cases among the justices.

What does rule 44 mean? ›

Rule 44 requires that a party who “questions the constitutionality of an Act of Congress” in a proceeding in which the United States is not a party must provide written notice of that challenge to the clerk.

What does rule 18 means? ›

Rule 18(a) allows unlimited joinder of claims by a plaintiff or a counterclaiming defendant. Law and equity having been merged, this means that legal and equitable claims may be joined, either independently or in the alternative.

What is a Rule 37? ›

The purpose of Rule 37 is to establish and regulate a judicial case management system to apply at any stage after notice of intention to defend or oppose is filed.

How hard are special masters programs? ›

Because SMPs are both expensive and academically challenging, they're commonly said to be “high-risk, high-reward.” In other words, students who work hard and earn strong grades in their SMP coursework can significantly improve their odds of gaining medical school acceptances.

Who was the special master for 9 11? ›

Why 9/11 special master Kenneth Feinberg wouldn't take on Trump documents case. Lawyer Kenneth Feinberg estimates he's taken on about "half a dozen" of the nation's most difficult tasks as special master over the years. He oversaw the September 11th Victims Compensation Fund during former President George W.

How is the master of the Rolls appointed? ›

By law, candidates for the post must be qualified for appointment as a Lord Justice of Appeal or to be a judge of the Court of Appeal. In practice, Heads of Division are generally appointed from among the Lords of Appeal in Ordinary (the Law Lords) or Lord or Lady Justices of Appeal.

What is the easiest masters to get? ›

Following is the list of easiest masters degrees that one can choose to specialize in.
  • Masters of Fine Arts (MFA)
  • Masters of Arts (MA)
  • Masters in Mass Communication.
  • Masters of Psychology.
  • Masters of Finance.
  • Masters of Human Resource Management (MHRM)
  • Masters of Business Administration (MBA)
  • Masters of Science (MSc)

What is the most respected masters degree? ›

The Top 8 Highest-Paying Master's Degrees
  • Master of Business Administration (MBA)
  • Master of Science in Nursing.
  • Master of Engineering Management.
  • Master of Science in Petroleum Engineering.
  • Master of Science in Finance.
  • Master of Arts in Political Science.
  • Master of Science in Computer Science.
Jul 17, 2020

What can I do with a masters in special needs? ›

Traditional roles include support services within education institutions, consultancy for schools and universities regarding special needs policy, and positions within funding bodies which assist disabled students.

What is a special master California? ›

What is a Special Master? In Federal Court, a Referee is called a "Special Master.” Referees and Special Masters help parties handle the exchange of papers and can help settle some or all of the issues in the case.”

What is a master in the High Court? ›

A Master is a judge who at first instance in the High Court deals with all aspects of a claim, from its issue until the trial, either by a High Court judge or a Master.

What is a special master in Georgia? ›

DeKalb and Fulton County attorneys serving the Court as Special Master. A Special Master is an attorney appointed by a judge to hear evidence and to make recommendations to the judge as to the disposition of a matter relating to real estate.

Is mediator the same as intercessor? ›

Answer: To be more specific, the term is “mediator” rather than “intercessor.” St. Paul writes: “For there is one God. There is also one mediator between God and the human race, Christ Jesus, himself human” (1 Tim 2:5). A mediator does more than intercede.

What are four characteristics of a good mediator? ›

5 Characteristics of a Great Mediator
  • Trustworthiness. A good mediator inspires trust. ...
  • Approachability. Good mediators are seen as friendly, empathetic, and respectful. ...
  • Dedication. Dedication is a sterling quality in all professionals, and mediators are no exception. ...
  • Perceptiveness. ...
  • Impartial.
Sep 20, 2017

How can you tell if someone is a mediator? ›

If the change in the level of the independent variable significantly accounts for variation in the other variable, then the variable is considered a mediator variable.

What are the two types of masters? ›

Generally speaking, there are two main types of master's degrees: course-based (taught) and research-based.

What do you call a person who holds a master's degree? ›

A master's student is called a graduate student or “grad student” for short. A student still studying for a bachelor's degree is called an undergraduate student or “undergrad student.”

Why do they call it a Masters? ›

The term master was originally equivalent to doctor; in the faculty of arts the approved scholar was styled master, while in faculties of divinity, medicine, and law the scholar was termed doctor.

What are the powers of Special Court? ›

A Special Court shall have jurisdiction to try any person concerned in the offence in respect of which a declaration has been made, either as principal, conspirator or abettor and all other offences and accused persons as can be jointly tried therewith at one trial in accordance with the Code.

What is an example of a Special Court? ›

“Special courts” are those courts with a limited jurisdiction – such as traffic court, misdemeanor courts, domestic violence court, or small claims court, to name a few. Special courts are also courts serving a particular population, such as tribal courts.

What are the four special courts? ›

Special courts
  • Specialized regional courts.
  • Court of Tax Appeals.
  • Sandiganbayan.
  • Sharia Courts.
  • Military courts.

Why are special courts Special? ›

Specialty Courts are problem-solving court strategies designed to address the root causes of criminal activity by coordinating efforts of the judiciary, prosecution, defense bar, probation, law enforcement, treatment, mental health services, and social service agencies.

What's the main power of the Supreme Court? ›

Although the Supreme Court may hear an appeal on any question of law provided it has jurisdiction, it usually does not hold trials. Instead, the Court's task is to interpret the meaning of a law, to decide whether a law is relevant to a particular set of facts, or to rule on how a law should be applied.

How long does it take the Supreme Court to make a decision? ›

Q: How long does it take the Court to act, once a petition has been filed? A: On the average, about six weeks. Once a petition has been filed, the other party has 30 days within which to file a response brief, or, in some cases waive his/ her right to respond.

Has a Supreme Court judge ever been removed? ›

The only Justice to be impeached was Associate Justice Samuel Chase in 1805. The House of Representatives passed Articles of Impeachment against him; however, he was acquitted by the Senate. Who decides how many Justices are on the Court?

How many powers does the Supreme Court have? ›

The Supreme Court has three types of jurisdictions namely original, appellate and advisory. Original jurisdiction: There are certain cases which fall within the exclusive jurisdiction of the Supreme Court.

What are special powers given to the Senate? ›

The Senate has the sole power to confirm those of the President's appointments that require consent, and to ratify treaties. There are, however, two exceptions to this rule: the House must also approve appointments to the Vice Presidency and any treaty that involves foreign trade.

What is a Rule 35 hearing? ›

What Is a Rule 35 Federal Motion? Rule 35(b) of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure allows a federal prosecutor to ask the sentencing court to reduce the incarcerated individuals previously-imposed sentence. Simply stated, a Rule 35 motion is essentially a plea for leniency.

What is Rule 78 of the Internet? ›

Change all passwords of the host and ensure the use of strong passwords.

What is Rule 55 of the Internet? ›

“The Internet makes you anonymous” - Rule 55: The Rules don't stop online - The Rules to Break, 2nd Edition [Book]

What does rule 49 mean? ›

Rule 49 is designed to encourage parties to resolve litigation more quickly and cost-effectively than by judgment of the court by motivating them to make reasonable offers to settle and imposing cost consequences on those who do not reasonably assess the value of their case and fail to accept reasonable offers to ...

What does rule 76 mean? ›

Kobe Bryant on Twitter: ""Rule number 76. No excuses.

What does rule 43 mean? ›

Rule 43 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure deals with the presence of the defendant during the proceedings against him. It presently permits a defendant to be tried in absentia only in non-capital cases where the defendant has voluntarily absented himself after the trial has begun.

What is a Rule 58? ›

Rule 58 provides that orders may be granted in matrimonial matters in respect of the following – interim maintenance; a contribution towards the costs of a pending matrimonial action; interim care of any child; or. interim contact with any child.

What is Rule 42? ›

If actions before the court involve a common question of law or fact, the court may: (A) join for hearing or trial any or all matters at issue in the actions; (B) consolidate the actions; or (C) issue any other orders to avoid unnecessary costs or delay.

What is Rule 34 of the law? ›

Rule 34 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure provides for discovery and inspection of documents and things in the course of developing a case for trial. Subsection (b)(1)(A) states that the request must “describe with reasonable particularity each item or category of items to be inspected.” See Fed.

When can you use the title of master? ›

The use of Master as a prefixed title is, according to Leslie Dunkling, "a way of addressing politely a boy ... too young to be called 'Mister'." It can be used as a title and form of address for any boy.

Who can use Master title? ›

Master is a title for an underage male. If a person is under 18, master would be used. Once a person turns 18 and enters adulthood, mister would be used.

Why do they call it a master? ›

Master was used in England for men of some rank, especially "free masters" of a trade guild and by any manual worker or servant employee addressing his employer (his master), but also generally by those lower in status to gentlemen , priests, or scholars.

What is someone with a masters called? ›

A master's student is called a graduate student or “grad student” for short. A student still studying for a bachelor's degree is called an undergraduate student or “undergrad student.”

Can you put Masters after your name? ›

If there are higher industry credentials than the one you hold, relegate those initials to your Education & Credentials section. Examples of this are master's degrees (MA, MS, etc.) and certifications like CompTIA A+, CCT, CCNA, and MTA.

Do you put MS after your name if you have a masters? ›

College degrees can be confusing because there are so many acronyms involved. If you meet someone with "MS" behind their name, it means they have obtained a Master of Science degree. It is a graduate-level degree that falls between a bachelor's and a doctorate.

What qualifies someone to be a special master? ›

Qualifications: By Statute: A special master is an attorney who is an active member in good standing of the State Bar selected from a list of qualified attorneys which is maintained by the State Bar particularly for the purpose of conducting the searches described in Penal Code §1524.

What are the two main types of master's degrees? ›

The Master of Arts and the Master of Science degrees are two of the most common Master's Degrees obtained. Many subjects such as Economics can fall in both the MA and the MS degrees depending on how the university classifies them and how they have built the curriculum.

How do you address a Master? ›

These are addressed and written to as Master …. These are addressed as “Sir” or “Madam”

How do you get Master title? ›

To qualify for a FIDE Master (FM) title a player must achieve a FIDE Rating of 2300 or more. Candidate Master (CM) is similar to FM, but with a FIDE Rating of at least 2200.

Can I put Lord on my passport? ›

Titles you can use on your passport

Put the details in the 'other title' box of your application and send evidence of your title. Your title will be on the 'observations' page of your passport - it will not be part of your name, except if it's a title of nobility, for example knight, dame or a lord.

What should I say instead of master? ›

Several companies have introduced their own approaches when nixing “master” and “slave.” Here are some proposed and instituted alternatives: Primary and secondary. Primary and replica. Primary and standby.

Can master be used for females? ›

As a pronoun, yes, Master is masculine. The feminine is Mistress. As a title…it can be ambiguous. Mistress is always feminine, but Master can be either, such as a “Master of Ceremonies”, who is usually male, but may sometimes be female.

What do you call something instead of master? ›

What is another word for master?
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4. Judge plans to appoint special master in Trump records case
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