Thursday, August 17, 2006

Federal court strikes down NSA domestic surveillance program


The first federal court to pass on the legality of the NSA domestic surveillance program has struck it down. Judge Anna Diggs Taylor of the Eastern District of Michigan enjoined the program today in ACLU v. NSA. The opinion is here and the order is here. The court rejected the state secrets privilege with respect to most of the plaintiffs' claims because it held that the information necessary to pass on the legality of the NSA program was already made public by the government and the government had made its justifications for the program public. The court also stated that it had reviewed secret material provided by the government in camera and concluded that none of it was necessary to pass on the legality of the claim. The governments suggestions to the contrary, it contended, were "disingenuous."

Nevertheless, the court upheld the state secrets privilege with respect to the plaintiffs' claim that the government was illegally using data mining techniques. The court held that this claim required access to sensitive information that could not be disclosed without a reasonable risk of harm to the interests of the United States. Therefore it dismissed the data-mining claim.

Next the court held that the plaintiffs had standing to challenge the NSA program. In fact, most of the opinion dealt with the state secrets and standing issues, leaving the discussion of the merits very sketchy indeed. And that is the major problem with the opinion.

Turning to the merits, the court held the NSA domestic surveillance program unconstitutional under the Fourth Amendment, the First Amendment right of association, and the general requirements of separation of powers under the doctrine of Youngstown. The court rejected inherent authority in the President to conduct the program and it rejected the claim of statutory authority under the September 18th, 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF). It held that the government's suggestion that FISA itself was unconstitutional was "irrelevant" because the President had already violated the First and Fourth Amendments.

Although the court reaches the right result-- that the program is illegal, much of the opinion is disappointing, and I would even suggest, a bit confused. The first amendment holding is novel although plausible, but it is not supported by very good arguments. The basic idea is that when the government spys on its citizens, they are likely to avoid making controversial statements or join controversial organizations. Fair enough. But the problem is that the program was secret. It was the disclosure of the program that created the chilling effect. And even if we put that problem to one side, it is not clear whether a program that is otherwise legal under the Fourth Amendment and federal law ipso facto violates the First Amendment simply because people are chilled by its existence.

Second, the court does not really deal with a number of very good arguments for why the NSA program might be within the Fourth Amendment. The best argument for the court's position is that if the program reaches United States persons who are not agents of a foreign power, like the plaintiffs, it may be unconstitutional. But the court does not make that distinction.

Finally, the court seems to be very weak in its reasoning about the separation of powers. It does not even cite the recent Hamdan decision, which is probably the most relevant decision, resting its arguments primarily on the 2004 Hamdi decision. It also seems confused about what constitutes a violation of separation of powers. If the AUMF did in fact amend FISA, the government has a very strong argument that it falls into category one-- maximum executive power-- and not category three-- minimum executive power-- under the Youngstown analysis. The court does not seem to deal with the best version of the government's arguments. I think those arguments fail, for reasons that Marty and I, among others, have elaborated. But I must say that the court's analysis is not very strong. It depends heavily on the fact that the President has violated the First and Fourth Amendments, which, I think, are the weakest arguments against the program. If those arguments go away, the separation of powers argument it offers is not very good, although in fact there are very good arguments for why the program does in fact violate the separation of powers, as well as FISA itself. The fact that the court does not bother to meet the government's suggestion that FISA is unconstitutional (to the extent that it limits executive power) is also quite unwise, in my view. Indeed, I'm mystified by the court's refusal to draw on well publicized debates over the legality of the program between Justice Department officials and legal academics and commentators that rehearses the best arguments pro and con, or, for that matter, the reasoning of the Supreme Court's Hamdan decision, handed down this June, which is, in my estimation, precisely on point.

It is quite clear that the government will appeal this opinion, and because the court's opinion, quite frankly, has so many holes in it, it is also clear to me that the plaintiffs will have to relitigate the entire matter before the circuit court, and possibly the Supreme Court. The reasons that the court below has given are just not good enough. This is just the opening shot in what promises to be a long battle.


Thanks for the timely analysis of the opinion.

In tactical, or practical, terms, when this case is appealed to what degree and in what ways will the failure of the Detroit court to address certain arguments affect the ability of the plaintiffs to give those issues some purchase?

The opinions rendered by SCOTUS often seem to ignore or grossly marginalize basic issues and even findings of fact. Sometimes this involves ignoring/marginalizing things that lower courts have addressed, of course. But my question is, when a lower court fails to address issues as in this case, to what degree does it tend to put them out of play during the appeal process?

Judge: "There Are No Hereditary Kings in America"

The rhetoric will be used as a rallying cry; the fight might become very public, as it should be.

Can't the program be justified under the 4A by analogy to sobriety checkpoints (Michigan Dept. of State Police v. Sitz) or airport searches?

I am happy to see the program challenged, but I still think the statutory argument against it is the strongest.

My question is whether the Executive will comply with the Court's Order to shut down the program, and how will we know if it doesn't?

Remember that the Electronic Frontier Foundation's domestic spying case is alive and ongoing. 17 newer domestic spying lawsuits have been transferred to this jurisdiction.

The EFF filed in January to get Judge Walker's ruling against state secrets. The EFF's lawsuit created an environment and energy for additional affidavits and newspaper articles that in turn helped all the newer lawsuits.

I think what the EFF does is critical, but unfortunately no major blogger has credited the EFF as a small donor-supported non-profit. Because I know EFF people and I'm a supporter I think this isn't good.

If you blog and you like the EFF's work, but you haven't mentioned that they're a non-profit, please consider giving them a shout-out.

As the judge caveats, Plaintiffs and Defendants provided volumes of material in camera and ex parte. This makes me wonder how much of the opinion legally would be deliverable exclusively in camera and ex parte; that is, we are working with a judgment rendered based on facts many of which are not public, yet, the opinion is public.

The judge goes to great lengths to avoid the graymail quagmire, and Plaintiffs have encouraged keeping as much of the case as possible in the daylight not in chambers, agreeing to limit discovery and to rein back claims by basing the injury on already published information rather than prying into secret programs.

I think there is a bit of sixth court politics in the distribution of gaps in the opinion, as well; and the opinion writing shows appreciation of the possibility that future cases very far removed from the subject matter in this case might nevertheless reference the instant judge's reasoning with respect to first and fourth amendment rights of citizens.

Another factor in the writing, I believe, hinges on the recent assignment of seventeen cousin cases to the Hettings court, although reportedly there remain a further sixteen cases not assigned to judge Walker.

I was disappointed in the partial summary judgment acceding to the motion to dismiss the data mining portion of the Complaint; but I suspect there are so many commercial effects of ruling in that narrow sphere that congress likely will need to get involved before a court will be willing to evaluate what constitutes a datamine. This is a dynamically changing part of the legal landscape in the executive, in congress, and in academic colloquy at the present.

An article August 11, 2006 describing the Walker court's seventeen new cases similar to Hepting (revised spelling).

As I've followed the arguments, I agree with J.B.'s judgment; but again as a matter of politics I think the debate may have changed. One can argue without being either a cynic or a 'realist' that politics helps to define or redefine the sort of arguments a reasonable person may be supposed to engage. The weak argument forcefully made: the force itself may provide the room for stronger ones to take hold. I think that may be the case here.
I hope so of course.

"Breaking the law".

I think the case would be completely re-litigated at the Sixth Circuit no matter what Judge Taylor had written. Both sides will bring their A game to the appeals court; certainly the government will have new lawyers, and I wouldn't be shocked to see some changes on the plaintiffs' side. Amici will play a bigger role as well.

I'd like to agree and amplify upon Kathryn's praise for the EFF. Their role in bringing this case to the public's attention is critical. The courts will not be influenced by public opinion, but the political tone of the country and the activities of the legislative might be.

I have seen the EFF speak at several computer security conferences, most recently at Defcon. It was an inspiring scene to experience 1000 hackers break out into raucous applause as the EFF described their legal challenges to the NSA domestic surveillance program. This is a highly intelligent, energetic group; and the EFF is getting them engaged civically.

The EFF is stretched thin these days. The Internet cum modern-world isn't a series of tubes. It's a dyke. And they're plugging the holes of fair-use encroachment, free and anonymous speech online, online privacy, and electronic voting.

Ask yourself, have progressive law and policy interests kept pace with the introduction of all of our new, oft disruptive, technologies? The need for the EFF is far greater than what it can currently hope to address. Please support them with publicity, money, and energy wherever you can.

Much as I can often be accused of picking nits...Goodness - HOW many reasons DOES she NEED to throw in this opinion to hold that this NSA program is blatantly violating the Constitution for you, Jack? Isn't finding it objectionable at all a WIN?

I just hope the appeals courts - as far as they go - uphold this and they can add as many ancillary arguments as they care to...Frost that CAKE to 5-Tiers for all I care...but Uphold this ruling!


Let me suggest that she may have done the plaintiffs' cause no good with this opinion, because one of the problems has always been standing. She essentially bootstrapped standing in based on the 1st Amdt. claim, which is somewhat dependant upon the 4th Amdt. claim - which I don't think she seriously addressed.

In any case, an appeals court probably would probably have a fairly easy job at knocking this house of cards down - for example, by rejecting the 1st Amdt. claim. And if they do, then this may be precedent against standing in further cases.

Seems to me like she just decided she simply wasn't going to indulge them at all. The whole opinion really revolves around two key points...

"[T]he court finds Defendants’ argument that they cannot defend this case without the use of classified information to be disingenuous and without merit."


"FISA’s history and content, detailed above, are highly specific in their requirements, and the AUMF, if construed to apply at all to intelligence is utterly general. In Morales v. TWA, Inc., 504 U.S. 374 (1992), the Supreme Court taught us that “it is a commonplace of statutory construction that the specific governs the general.” Id. at 384. The implication argued by Defendants, therefore, cannot be made by this court."

Boil it all down, and gist of it is nothing less than the obvious truth: the administration is breaking the law and their legal arguments are fraudulent.

I can't follow much of what everybody is saying, but will risk another comment anyway.

" The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized."

Not legalese, but plain and simple English that we non-lawyers can understand.

Why obfuscate? The law is for all of us.

JB, you blame the judge for not raising some issues, particularly the Hamdan decision. But the Hamdan decision was not released until June 29, which was too late to be discussed by the litigants in ACLU v. NSA, and it therefore would have been improper for the judge in ACLU v. NSA to consider the Hamdan case in her decision. The Hamdan case can presumably be raised in an appeal. Courts generally frown upon the raising of issues for the first time in an appeal, but I presume that an exception will be made for the Hamdan decision because it came too late for the district court litigation. There may be other issues that the judge did not raise because the litigants did not raise them.

As for the issue of whether the plaintiffs were "injured-in-fact," there is no express "injured-in-fact" requirement in the Constitution. This "injured-in-fact" requirement, along with the requirement of an actual dispute, i.e., a dispute that is not unripe or moot, are based on the "cases" and "controversies" provisions in Article III of the Constitution. But any dispute can be a "controversy," including a dispute over an unripe or moot question, so these requirements of injury-in-fact and an actual dispute are actually results of arbitrary court interpretations of the words "cases" and "controversies." Also, in supporting the "injured-in-fact" requirement, the courts have argued that an "injured-in-fact" plaintiff is more likely to be diligent in pursuing a lawsuit than a mere "concerned bystander" would be. Also, these requirements were introduced for the purpose of conserving judicial resources by reducing the number of suits that could be brought before the federal courts. The "injured-in-fact" requirement has not been strictly enforced -- for example, environmental laws have "citizen suit" provisions that allow people to sue for enforcement of these laws without requiring a showing of personal "injury-in-fact." Anyway, enforcing the "injury-in-fact" requirement -- which is not even explicitly in the Constitution -- at the expense of allowing a violation of the 4th and possibly 1st amendments would IMO be straining at a gnat and swallowing a camel. Also, a lot of people use the principle of expediency to argue logically in favor of violations of the Constitution or the laws, but as Sir Thomas More said in the play "A Man for All Seasons," "The world must construe according to its wits. This court must construe according to the law."

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