Stephen Breyer

An EPIC Effort to Combat the Dragnet

The Electronic Privacy Information Center has filed a writ of mandamus to SCOTUS to overturn the Section 215 order turning over all of Verizon’s call records to the NSA.

Let me be clear: this is a moon shot. I’m doubtful it’ll work. A really helpful post at SCOTUSblog on the effort emphasizes how unusual this is.

EPIC’s move is the boldest of a number of legal challenges to NSA that have been filed around the country by privacy defenders in the wake of Snowden’s public disclosure of some of the details of NSA surveillance.  EPIC filed under a Supreme Court rule that permits “extraordinary” filings directly in the Supreme Court, without first making a trip through a lower court, when “exceptional circumstances warrant the exercise of the Court’s discretionary powers” and an adequate remedy cannot be obtained “from any other court.”  The history of such Rule 20 requests shows that few are granted.  The Court’s own rules say that the power to grant such pleas is “sparingly exercised.”

All that said, IMO the filing is very well crafted, and worth reading with attention.

Name check the key Justices

I first got sucked in by the way the introduction invokes two recent cases on these issues.

The records acquired by the NSA under this Order detail the daily activities, interactions, personal and business relationships, religious and political affiliations, and other intimate details of millions of Americans. “Awareness that the Government may be watching chills associational and expressive freedoms. And the Government’s unrestrained power to assemble data that reveal private aspects of identity is susceptible to abuse.” United States v. Jones, 132 S. Ct. 945, 956 (2012) (Sotomayor, J., concurring). As Justice Breyer has recently noted, “the Government has the capacity to conduct electronic surveillance of the kind at issue.” Clapper v. Amnesty Int’l, USA, 133 S.Ct. 1138, 1158- 59 (2013) (citing, inter alia, Priest & Arkin, A Hidden World, Growing Beyond Control, Wash. Post, July 19, 2010, at A1 (reporting that the NSA collects 1.7 billion e-mails, telephone calls and other types of communications daily)). And because the NSA sweeps up judicial and Congressional communications, it inappropriately arrogates exceptional power to the Executive Branch.

Sotomayor is the one Justice who “gets” the implications of this dragnet; her opinion in Jones summarized where an ideal SCOTUS would be on these issues. If this is going to work Sotomayor is going to need to hold the hands of the other Justices and walk them through this risk. And Breyer is a key swing, a vote likely to support law and order without a good argument to the contrary.

And notice the way EPIC slipped in the separation of powers argument right there?

The motion also name checks two more crucial Justices, Republicans who have supported civil liberties issues on key cases in the past. Most importantly, it invokes Scalia’s recent warning against a panopticon in Maryland v. King (the DNA case).

Even admirable ends do not justify the creation of a panopticon. See Maryland v. King, 569 U.S. __, 133 S.Ct. 1958, 1989 (2013) (Scalia, J., dissenting) (“Solving unsolved crimes is a noble objective, but it occupies a lower place in the American pantheon of noble objectives than the protection of our people from suspicionless lawenforcement searches.”).

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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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