The 9th Circuit just released its decisions in two warrantless wiretap suits: Jewel, which claimed that the dragnet collection of communications from the Folsom Street AT&T facility violated FISA, Electronic Communication Privacy Act, and the Stored Communications Act; and Hepting, which argued that the FISA Amendments Act–which grated the telecoms retroactive immunity for their illegal wiretapping–was unconstitutional. Both opinions were authored by Margaret McKeown.
The Hepting decision is a slam dunk win for the telecoms. While there are some interesting–and perhaps dubious moves–in the decision, the Circuit completely upheld Vaughn Walker’s District Court ruling that the retroactive immunity granted to the telecoms was constitutional.
But that huge win for the telecoms relies on the Circuit’s observation that Congress has the authority to pass laws regarding surveillance. And that’s what gets the government in trouble in Jewel. The Circuit based its decision that Carolyn Jewel had standing to sue the government for collecting her communications on that same principle–that Congress could and had passed laws that regulate surveillance–including the private right of action for claims of illegal surveillance.
Both the ECPA and the FISA prohibit electronic interception of communications absent compliance with statutory procedures. The SCA likewise prohibits the government from obtaining certain communication records. Each statute explicitly creates a private right of action for claims of illegal surveillance.
McKeown’s opinion then uses the authority of Congress to dismiss the notion that this question–whether the Executive could be punished for its illegal surveillance of Jewel–should be thrown back in Congress’ lap. Congress has already weighed in on the issue, McKeown points out, both in the underlying statutes (providing for a judicial avenue of relief), and in the FAA (granting immunity to the telecoms but not the government).
After labeling Jewel’s claim as an effort “to redress alleged malfeasance by the executive branch,” the district court stated that “the political process, rather than the judicial process,” may be the appropriate avenue. There is little doubt that Jewel challenges conduct that strikes at the heart of a major public controversy involving national security and surveillance. And we understand the government’s concern that national security issues require sensitivity. That being said, although the claims arise from political conduct and in a context that has been highly politicized, they present straightforward claims of statutory and constitutional rights, not political questions. See Japan Whaling Ass’n v. Am. Cetacean Soc., 478 U.S. 221, 230 (1986).
The district court’s suggestion that Congress rather than the courts is the preferred forum ignores two important points: To begin, Congress already addressed the issue and spelled out a private right of action in the FISA, ECPA and SCA. Read more