[Given the current surveillance state situation in America, the Keith case, formally known as United States v. United States District Court, is one of the most important cases from our recent past. But I don’t really believe you can understand or know the law of a case, without really understanding the facts. The Keith case doesn’t have simple facts, but they are fascinating and instructive. So bear with me – this is going to take awhile, and will be laid out over a series of four posts. In Part I we went into the background, predicate facts and surrounding circumstances of the Keith case. Today in Part 2 we will discuss the actual court goings on in more detail. – Mary]
District Court Judges Deal with the Mitchell Doctrine in Smith & Sinclair.
Before we can get to the actual Keith case, where the DOJ filed a mandamus against Judge Keith, we have to look at what Judge Keith did with the DOJ arguments in the Sinclair case. In his Memorandum Opinion, Judge Keith summarized the DOJ’s position:
The position of the Government in this matter, simply stated, is that the electronic monitoring of defendant Plamondon’s conversations was lawful in spite of the fact that the surveillance was initiated and conducted without a judicial warrant. In support of this position, the Government contends that the United States Attorney General, as agent of the President, has the constitutional power to authorize electronic surveillance without a court warrant in the interest of national security.
Judge Keith then went on to list several cases, one from the Fifth Circuit and two others from District Courts in Kansas and Illinois, respectively, where the government had been successful in a similar argument.
However, not every case had gone DOJ’s way and Judge Keith chose to focus on “the exceptionally well-reasoned and thorough opinion of the Honorable Judge Warren Ferguson of the Central District of California. United States v. Smith, 321 F. Supp. 424 (C.D.Cal.1971).” Judge Ferguson bucked the Mitchell Doctrine in very clear and even prescient terms. The opinion isn’t long and it’s well worth the read. Judge Ferguson deals very swiftly with the Omnibus Act argument and moves on to the Fourth Amendment issues, finding that whatever exceptions you may and may not find in a statute, they do not create an exemption from the application of the Constitution.
DOJ argued (and its an argument that those involved in illegal surveillance still mouth today, largely unchallenged) that the Fourth Amendment isn’t really about interposing independent magistrates and warrants, it’s about … being reasonable. DOJ argued that the Executive branch only had to be reasonable in its surveillance and that they can best decide, based on all the complex issues of national security, if they’ve been reasonable. Judge Ferguson, quoting from a prior Supreme Court case, exposed that this argument would mean that the Fourth Amendment evaporates.
Interestingly, the Smith case also delves pretty deeply into another of the DOJ’s argument (again, one that persists today) that the warrantless wiretaps were legal because *everyone else did it too.* It makes for very interesting reading and attaches prior Presidential directives on warrantless wiretapping.
Beyond dealing with the Mitchell Doctrine Judge Ferguson had the insight and foresight to identify the problems presented by the inability of the courts to punish illegal Executive action other than by the Exclusionary Rule and also by the fact that under the DOJ’s, there was nothing that required the President to delegate this warrantless wiretap authority to the Attorney General. Rather than a delegation to the highest law enforcement officer of the nation who was required to specifically designate each person for surveillance, Judge Ferguson worried that under the DOJ’s argument the President could, instead, delegate such warrantless wiretap power to anyone and they could target without particularity. Judge Ferguson didn’t specifically mention night supervisors at the NSA or a massive program where the Attorney General turns the NSA loose to allow massive interceptions at the options of low level NSA operatives – interceptions without individual authorizations and without even an ability for the Attorney General to track, in filings to a secret court, who has been illegally surveilled. But he knew what men do with no oversight and no checks – he knew who Haydens were and what they would do.