Tuesday, July 17, 2007

How Courts May Subvert the Constitution

To what degree shall this decision be applied?

What about instances where there's a definitely suggestive time-line of politically motivated criminal law enforcement, but alas a lack of allowable discovery, as well as the police video being "just grey static"?

By Anne Broache
Staff Writer, CNET News.com

In a setback for foes of a controversial Bush administration wiretapping program, a federal appeals court on Friday threw out an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit that alleged illicit snooping on Americans' calls and e-mails.

In a 2-1 decision (PDF), the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati dismissed a federal district court ruling from last August that found the National Security Agency's Terrorist Surveillance Program violated the U.S. Constitution and ordered it to stop. The majority's ruling did not address the legality of the program; rather, it tossed out the case on narrow procedural grounds.

The move marked the first time an appeals court has weighed in on the numerous pending challenges to the spy program. Friday's decision isn't expected to have any direct impact on two related cases pending in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals and more than 40 others that have been consolidated for consideration in a San Francisco district court.

ACLU Legal Director Steven Shapiro said his organization had not ruled out petitioning the U.S. Supreme Court for another look at the 6th Circuit's action.

"As a result of today's decision, the Bush administration has been left free to violate the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which Congress adopted almost 30 years ago to prevent the executive branch from engaging in precisely this kind of unchecked surveillance," Shapiro said in a statement. "It is important to emphasize that the court today did not uphold the legality of the government's warrantless surveillance activity."

The ACLU and the journalists, scholars, criminal defense attorneys and Islamic-Americans it represented had argued that the NSA program, which came to light in a November 2005 New York Times report, was trampling on federal laws and the plaintiffs' constitutional rights to free speech and privacy.

Their arguments rested on what they called a "well-founded belief" that the government was tapping their regular overseas communications--some of which, because of the nature of the plaintiffs' professions, they have an ethical duty to keep confidential--without the necessary court approval.

Judges Alice Batchelder and Julia Smith Gibbons, both appointed by President Ronald Reagan, concluded in separate opinions that the parties that sued the NSA didn't have standing to bring their case in the first place. They ordered that the suit be sent back to a lower court and roundly dismissed.

The two judges' reasoning, which differs at times, boils down to one general result: the parties that sued the NSA hadn't shown adequate evidence that they have been "personally" subject to the eavesdropping program. Even if the plaintiffs had wanted to supply evidence to back such a claim, they would have been stymied by the government's assertion of its "state secrets" privilege, which permits the derailing of lawsuits that might otherwise lead to the disclosure of military secrets.

Ruling on NSA Warrantless Wiretapping

Ronald Lee Gilman, the dissenting Judge

While the two judges in the majority did not rule on the legality of the program, the third judge -- Judge Gilman -- agreed with Judge Taylor's finding that the President's program violated FISA. He thus wrote that he "would affirm its judgment," and he rejected the administration's standard two defenses for that behavior (i.e., (1) that Authorization For Use Of Military Force , (AUMF), implicitly authorized FISA violations and (2) the President has "inherent authority" under Article II to eavesdrop with no warrants). In fact, just as was true for Judge Taylor, Judge Gilman found that while the "standing" issue was a close one, the actual merits -- i.e., whether the President broke the law -- was not close:
The closest question in this case, in my opinion, is whether the plaintiffs have the standing to sue. Once past that hurdle, however, the rest gets progressively easier . . . .

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