Samuel Alito

Courts Won’t Be Reviewing Legality of Counterterrorism Programs Anytime Soon

By a 5-4 party line vote, SCOTUS denied standing in Amnesty v. Clapper today.

The majority opinion, written by Sam Alito, emphasizes separation of power.

The law of Article III standing, which is built on separation-of-powers principles, serves to prevent the judicial process from being used to usurp the powers of the political branches.

[snip]

In keeping with the purpose of this doctrine, “[o]ur standing inquiry has been especially rigorous when reaching the merits of the dispute would force us to decide whether an action taken by one of the other two branches of the Federal Government was unconstitutional.”

[snip]

and we have often found a lack of standing in cases in which the Judiciary has been requested to review actions of the political branches in the fields of intelligence gathering and foreign affairs,

It uses a high standard for the imminence of harm, including what I consider a highly ironic passage, considering the Administration’s own standards for imminence.

“Although imminence is concededly a somewhat elastic concept, it cannot be stretched beyond its purpose, which is to ensure that the alleged injury is not too speculative for Article III purposes—that the injury is certainly impending.” Id., at 565, n. 2 (internal quotation marks omitted). Thus, we have repeatedly reiterated that “threatened injury must be certainly impending to constitute injury in fact,” and that “[a]llegations of possible future injury” are not sufficient.

It even says it can’t use in camera review in this case, because doing so would establish a precedent terrorists could use to find out whether they’re being wiretapped.

It was suggested at oral argument that the Government could help resolve the standing inquiry by disclosing to a court, perhaps through an in camera proceeding, (1) whether it is intercepting respondents’ communications and (2) what targeting or minimization procedures it is using. See Tr. of Oral Arg. 13–14, 44, 56. This suggestion is puzzling. As an initial matter, it is respondents’ burden to prove their standing by pointing to specific facts, Lujan v. Defenders of Wildlife, 504 U. S. 555, 561 (1992), not the Government’s burden to disprove standing by revealing details of its surveillance priorities. Moreover, this type of hypothetical disclosure proceeding would allow a terrorist (or his attorney) to determine whether he is currently under U. S. surveillance simply by filing a lawsuit challenging the Government’s surveillance program. Even if the terrorist’s attorney were to comply with a protective order prohibiting him from sharing the Government’s disclosures with his client, the court’s postdisclosure decision about whether to dismiss the suit for lack of standing would surely signal to the terrorist whether his name was on the list of surveillance targets.

Ultimately, though, it said the plaintiff’s fears were too speculative to amount to standing.

It does so by ignoring — and indeed, misrepresenting — the details presented about what is new in this program. Here’s how Stephen Breyer, in his dissent, describes them.

The addition of §1881a in 2008 changed this prior law in three important ways. First, it eliminated the require­ ment that the Government describe to the court each specific target and identify each facility at which its sur­ veillance would be directed, thus permitting surveillance on a programmatic, not necessarily individualized, basis. §1881a(g). Second, it eliminated the requirement that a target be a “foreign power or an agent of a foreign power.” Ibid. Third, it diminished the court’s authority to insist upon, and eliminated its authority to supervise, instance-specific privacy-intrusion minimization procedures (though the Government still must use court-approved general minimization procedures). §1881a(e).

By contrast, Alito claims the new program only allows the government to target individuals (h/t Julian Sanchez who first pointed this out).

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SCOTUS Conservatives in Anonymous Disarray

I expressed skepticism about the part of Jan Crawford’s story confirming John Roberts flipped his vote on ObamaCare that claimed Roberts had no role in writing the dissent.

Finally, there is Crawford’s not entirely convincing explanation for the relics in the dissent that seem to suggest Roberts had a hand in crafting the dissent, too.

The two sources say suggestions that parts of the dissent were originally Roberts’ actual majority decision for the Court are inaccurate, and that the dissent was a true joint effort.

The fact that the joint dissent doesn’t mention Roberts’ majority was not a sign of sloppiness, the sources said, but instead was a signal the conservatives no longer wished to engage in debate with him.

If true, those relics, which violate normal protocol for referring to other opinions, reflect a very big affront to Roberts’ governing opinion.

Salon now has a single anonymous source disputing Crawford’s two anonymous sources on this point.

Crawford’s sources insist on the claim that the joint dissent was authored specifically in response to Roberts’ majority opinion, without any participation from him at any point in the drafting process that created it. It would, after all, be fairly preposterous for the four dissenters to jointly “author” an opinion that was in large part written originally by the author of the majority opinion to which the joint dissenters were now so flamboyantly objecting.

Yet that, I am told by a source within the court with direct knowledge of the drafting process, is exactly what happened. My source insists that “most of the material in the first three quarters of the joint dissent was drafted in Chief Justice Roberts’ chambers in April and May.” Only the last portion of what eventually became the joint dissent was drafted without any participation by the chief justice.

[snip]

Roberts’ chamber did much of the drafting of the [first 46 pages of the dissent, which don't mention Roberts' opinion], and none of the [last 19 pages, which do mention it]. In short, it appears Chief Justice Roberts ended up in large part authoring both the majority opinion and the dissent in National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius.

Set aside the fact we’ve got a anonymous leak war going on, with neither side inherently garnering credibility. Set aside what Salon’s report, if correct, would suggest about Roberts.

I want to focus on what it means that comity in the court has broken down in this way. If Crawford’s report comes, as many suspected, from the conservative justices themselves, it would suggest they leaked a transparently illogical cover story (in that it didn’t explain the relics that made everyone suspicious about the dissent in the first place). They not only broke SCOTUS protocol about leaks, but did so and, reportedly, lied in doing so.

Then you’ve got a quick response from someone–could this be a Roberts clerk? one of the other conservatives?–calling out that purported lie.

To what end? To shift the emphasis on Roberts’ fickleness? To try to tone down the confrontational claims at the heart of the Crawford piece? And if another of the conservatives is behind the Salon report, then how do the original leakers feel about the story? What are the political objectives of each side of this anonymous leak war?

And all this is just what we can see through the screen of anonymity. The rancor this expresses must be worse in person.

Even if it’s all anonymous, I gotta say, I’m glad this leak fest has revealed the conservative justices in all their bitchy glory.

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Chief Justice Roberts, Flipped Votes, and the Naked Partisans

Yesterday Barack Obama discovered the one high-rankng Republican in the country who would help him raise taxes: John Roberts.

While the political (how will yesterday’s ruling affect both the Presidential and lower ticket races in November) and pragmatic (what red states will turn down tons of Federal money to provide health care for their poor) consequences of yesterday’s decision are still playing out, I’m quite interested in the Kremlinology over Roberts’ vote.

Because the unsigned dissent on the mandate refers to Justice Ginsburg’s opinion as itself the dissent–and for a slew more reasons–a number of people think that Roberts originally joined the conservatives, but then flipped at a late moment. (See here and here for a discussion of the evidence supporting that argument, see here for an alternative explanation.)

Then there are questions about why Roberts voted, for the first time, with just the liberal block, his first swing vote on one of the highest profile cases of his tenure. Was it to save the respectability of the Court? To gut the commerce clause? To serve his one consistent constituency, corporations?

The answer to those questions, too, are still playing out.

I can’t help but see this in another context. This decision was the last opportunity for SCOTUS to help defeat Barack Obama. They helped mightily with Citizens United and again with their rejection of the Montana campaign finance case. The Court came close to helping on voting rights and redistricting. The Republicans in the Roberts court has done a lot to make sure Obama doesn’t get to pick anymore of their future colleagues.

But yesterday’s decision had a big impact on the the course of this year’s election. Had the Administration lost, I do think they hypothetically could have used the loss as a rallying point, though in practice they have never shown the ability to win this political argument or even try in concerted fashion, so the more likely outcome would have been a setback at the polls. I do think given Mitt’s embrace of the dissent–rejecting insurance for those with pre-existing conditions, among other things–Democrats ought to be able to spin his opposition to great advantage. Yet I also agree with those who argue that neither Obama nor Mitt have an incentive to talk much about healthcare moving forward. Congressional races are another thing altogether, as the GOP will try to run on a promise to overturn ObamaCare.

Alll that said, I’m most struck by the naked partisan face that has emerged in recent days. While the dissent was largely an angry legalistic screed, the decision–to overturn all of ObamaCare–was radical in its intent. Ginsburg’s opinion’s frequent reliance on the Massachusetts example, RomneyCare, was a nice partisan touch. Most all there’s the haunting dissent to the SB 1070 ruling that Scalia read on Monday, using slavery-era law to argue that states could exclude undesirables from their state (to say nothing of Alito’s defense of life in prison for teenagers).

Roberts may be a corporatist, but the other four conservatives are showing far uglier faces of late.

Then there’s this detail. Amanda Terkel noted Jim DeMint saying conservatives had been “teased” into believing SCOTUS would overturn ObamaCare for them, doing as activist judges what even Erick Erickson now accepts must be done by politics.

“Teased”? What does that mean? Was DeMint “teased” with the results before Roberts flipped, if he did? Did DeMint have reason to believe the five conservatives had taken the radical step of overturning all of ObamaCare?

I don’t know the answer to that, but I will say that the dissenters yesterday have clerks and other staffers who, with a half hour’s work, could have hid the most obvious relics of John Roberts’ flip, if that’s what he did. Search and replace: “dissent,” “concurrence.” That is, if indeed Roberts flipped his vote, then it seems likely that the angry Republicans deliberately left evidence that would lead us all to speculate if not conclude he had done so.

SCOTUS doesn’t leak, Jack Goldsmith says, because it doesn’t bring the same political leverage that leaking does for Executive branch employees.

The justices benefit from the reality and mystique of secrecy, and gain nothing from a leak. A justice can frame a case to the public in a written opinion and wins no internal leverage (and likely loses some) from disclosing the disposition of a case prematurely.

[snip]

Emboldened lower level officials become disrespectful of the secrecy system and sometimes disclose classified information to spin an operation in their favor, to settle a bureaucratic score, or to appear important.

Whether or not Jim DeMint learned how the Court voted some time ago, if it’s true Roberts flipped his vote, then it seems likely the other conservatives–the ones serving an even uglier partisan ideology than Roberts’ raw corporatism–believe they benefit from making that known now, after the fact.

They delivered their side of the bargain, the clues in the dissent show. And they seem to want that known.

Ron Wyden Suggests Secret PATRIOT GPS Tracking May Be Illegal Under Jones

As I’ve suggested in my posts on US v Jones, the Justices seemed opposed to the kind of tracking we believe the government is doing under Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act. Yet of the three opinions ruling the warrantless use of GPS tracking in the case improper, only Sonia Sotomayor spoke broadly enough to make it clear that the Secret PATRIOT application is unconstitutional.

Ron Wyden (who, remember, wrote a column on Jones’ application to Secret PATRIOT) used yesterday’s Threat Assessment hearing to try to get James Clapper to commit to whether US v Jones makes Secret PATRIOT illegal. (2:25)

Wyden: Director Clapper, as you know the Supreme Court ruled last week that it was unconstitutional for federal agents to attach a GPS tracking device to an individual’s car and monitor their movements 24/7 without a warrant. Because the Chair was being very gracious, I want to do this briefly. Can you tell me as of now what you believe this means for the intelligence community, number 1, and 2, would you be willing to commit this morning to giving me an unclassified response with respect to what you believe the law authorizes. This goes to the point that you and I have talked, Sir, about in the past, the question of secret law, I strongly feel that the laws and their interpretations must be public. And then of course the important work that all of you’re doing we very often have to keep that classified in order to protect secrets and the well-being of your capable staff. So just two parts, 1, what you think the law means as of now, and will you commit to giving me an unclassified answer on the point of what you believe the law actually authorizes.

Clapper: Sir, the judgment rendered was, as you stated, was in a law enforcement context. We are now examining, and the lawyers are, what are the potential implications for intelligence, you know, foreign or domestic. So, that reading is of great interest to us. And I’m sure we can share it with you. [looks around for confirmation] One more point I need to make, though. In all of this, we will–we have and will continue to abide by the Fourth Amendment.

Given Clapper’s quick invocation of the law enforcement context, I suspect the Intelligence Community’s lawyers are planning to use the language in Samuel Alito’s concurring opinion addressing “extraordinary offenses”…

We also need not consider whether prolonged GPS monitoring in the context of investigations involving extraordinary offenses would similarly intrude on a constitutionally protected sphere of privacy. In such cases, long-term tracking might have been mounted using previously available techniques.

…To claim that their intelligence application–”foreign or domestic”–would still permit the tracking of innocent citizens using their cell phones.

In any case, if Clapper is good on his word (though note, he said he’d give this interpretation to Wyden, not release it publicly), the government may finally tip its hand regarding its cell phone tracking of Americans.

SCOTUS Unanimously Declares (Some) GPS Tracking a Search

Good news! The Fourth Amendment is not totally dead yet!

SCOTUS just handed down its decision in US v. Jones, which I wrote about here. And while there are three concurring opinions (the majority authored by Scalia and joined by Roberts, Kennedy, Thomas, and Sotomayor, a concurrence from Sotomayor, and another concurrence written by Alito and joined by Ginsburg, Breyer, and Kagan), all upheld the Circuit Court decision throwing out evidence warrantless use of a GPS surveillance.

But the opinions are worth reading closely because–as I pointed out in my earlier post–they may indicate whether SCOTUS would find the Administration’s secret use of the PATRIOT Act to track people via the GPS in their cell phones to be legal (as well as other digital surveillance).

Scalia’s opinion focused on the way the government occupied property in this case, arguing that more recent decisions that have focused on reasonable expectations of privacy do not affect the original protection of the Fourth Amendment tied to property.

It is important to be clear about what occurred in this case: The Government physically occupied private property for the purpose of obtaining information. We have no doubt that such a physical intrusion would have been considered a “search” within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment when it was adopted.

[snip]

Jones’s Fourth Amendment rights do not rise or fall with the Katz formulation [expectation of privacy]. At bottom, we must “assur[e] preservation of that degree of privacy against government that existed when the Fourth Amendment was adopted.” Kyllo, supra, at 34. As explained, for most of our history the Fourth Amendment was understood to embody a particular concern for government trespass upon the areas (“persons, houses, papers, and effects”) it enumerates.

[snip]

What we apply is an 18th-century guarantee against un- reasonable searches, which we believe must provide at a minimum the degree of protection it afforded when it was adopted. The concurrence does not share that belief. It would apply exclusively Katz’s reasonable-expectation of-
privacy test, even when that eliminates rights that previously existed.

Alito’s concurrence, on the other hand, sees four problems with this approach, which boil down to the implications of Scalia’s logic being both too narrow and too broad. The first three are:

  • It would find non-trespassing long-term surveillance okay but short term trespass not (both one and two are versions of this)
  • Given different state property laws (particularly community property under marriage), it would have inconsistent results in different states

Alito’s fourth problem, though, is the key one: Scalia’s approach is not very helpful given how much surveillance is electronic.

Fourth, the Court’s reliance on the law of trespass will present particularly vexing problems in cases involving surveillance that is carried out by making electronic, as opposed to physical, contact with the item to be tracked. For example, suppose that the officers in the present case had followed respondent by surreptitiously activating a stolen vehicle detection system that came with the car when it was purchased.

That said, having made a case that electronic surveillance can be just as inappropriate as physical trespass assisted surveillance, Alito goes onto make problematic squishy distinctions, suggesting our current expectations of privacy with regards to GPS tracking pivot on the length of time the surveillance continues. And he suggests we may be losing our expectation of privacy with respect to that tracking.

For example, when a user activates the GPS on such a phone, a provider is able to monitor the phone’s location and speed of movement and can then report back real-time traffic conditions after combining (“crowdsourcing”)
the speed of all such phones on any particular road.9 Similarly, phone-location-tracking services are offered as “social” tools, allowing consumers to find (or to avoid) others who enroll in these services. The availability and use of these and other new devices will continue to shape the average person’s expectations about the privacy of his or her daily movements.

Most troubling, Alito suggests that for some “extraordinary offenses,” extended tracking might be okay.

We also need not consider whether prolonged GPS monitoring in the context of investigations involving extraordinary offenses would similarly intrude on a constitutionally protected sphere of privacy. In such cases, long-term tracking might have been mounted using previously available techniques.

Both Alito and Scalia (who rightly mocks this carve out) seem unwilling to talk about what might be acceptable in counterterrorism surveillance.

In short, while Scalia crafts a fairly cautious opinion based on private property, Alito crafts one that could easily be chipped away as we all get used to our smart phones.

The two arch-conservative Republicans both defend the Fourth Amendment, though, but it’s unclear they’re read to talk about the big questions before us (and, presumably, before them in the near future). In at least one way, Alito even underestimates what the government is capable of, claiming it cannot

But the use of longer term GPS monitoring in investigations of most offenses impinges on expectations of privacy. For such offenses, society’s expectation has been that law enforcement agents and others would not—and indeed, in the main, simply could not—secretly monitor and catalogue
every single movement of an individual’s car for a very long period.

That’s likely a false assumption, particularly given the storage capacity our government is using to surveil us and the requirements on cell phone companies to store data.

Sotomayor, IMO, is the only one ready to articulate where all this is heading. She makes it clear that she sides with those that see a problem with electronic surveillance too.

I would take these attributes of GPS monitoring into account when considering the existence of a reasonable societal expectation of privacy in the sum of one’s public movements. I would ask whether people reasonably expect that their movements will be recorded and aggregated in a manner that enables the Government to ascertain, more or less at will, their political and religious beliefs, sexual habits, and so on.

[snip]

I would also consider the appropriateness of entrusting to the, in the absence of any oversight from a coordinate branch, a tool so amenable to misuse, especially in light of the Fourth Amendment’s goal to curb arbitrary exercises of police power to and prevent“a too permeating police surveillance,”

And in a footnote, makes a broader claim about the current expectation of privacy than Alito makes.

Owners of GPS-equipped cars and smartphones do not contemplate that these devices will be used to enable covert surveillance of their movements.

Ultimately, the other Justices have not tipped their hand where they’ll come down on more generalized issues of cell phone based surveillance. Sotomayor’s opinion actually doesn’t go much further than Scalia claims to when he says they can return to Katz on such issues–but obviously none of the other Republicans joined her opinion. And all those who joined Alito’s opinion seem to be hiding behind the squishy definitions that will allow them to flip flop when the Administration invokes national security.

Update: This is a great post on what Jones means for the Fourth Amendment more generally.

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emptywheel @kevinjonheller He hasn't thrown a pick yet, has he? Still watching bc I'm waiting for a pick.
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bmaz @OBEYshiba done.
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bmaz @Travis_Waldron "My only child born 4 days before last Lions playoff victory. I am now a grandfather." http://t.co/hGouSM0hVh cc @emptywheel
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emptywheel @Krhawkins5 Did you track the Black List? And how they changed policy on it?
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emptywheel @Krhawkins5 also, the guy the provenance of whose story CIA still refuses to declassify, right? ;p
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emptywheel @Krhawkins5 I don't remember it.
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emptywheel @kevinjonheller Also I don't dislike the Browns. Lived w/a guy chased by "Browns backers" for a year. I wish them well.
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emptywheel @kevinjonheller Yeah. Another Spartie I shouldn't be rooting for (like Cousins, who I REALLY like).
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