Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Federal Judge Rules Against the NSA in Snooping Case. What's Next?

A federal judge has preliminarily enjoined the controversial NSA spying program. Edward Snowden, a former NSA employee, leaked information regarding the classified program earlier this year.

The judge held that the policy likely violates the Fourth Amendment because plaintiffs have a reasonable expectation of privacy with respect to information that telecoms store regarding their use of computers, phone calls, etc.

The judge distinguished difficult and possibly contrary Supreme Court precedent in part because he believed that the dated case law should not apply in today's world where the implications of technological snooping are quite extreme:
[T]he almost-Orwellian technology that enables the Government to store and analyze the phone metadata of every telephone user in the United States is unlike  anything that could have been conceived in 1979. In Smith the Supreme Court was actually considering whether local police could collect one person 's phone records for calls made after the pen register was installed and for the limited purpose of a small-scale investigation of harassing phone calls. . . . . The notion that the Government could collect similar data on hundreds of millions of people and retain that data for a five-year period, updating it with new data every day in perpetuity, was at best, in 1979, the stuff of science fiction.  By comparison, the Government has at its disposal today the most advanced twenty-first century tools, allowing it to "store such records and efficiently mine them for information years into the future" [quoting Justice Sotomayor opinion in a recent Fourth Amendment decision regarding GPS monitoring] . . . . And these technologies are "cheap in comparison to conventional surveillance techniques and, by design, proceed[] surreptitiously," thereby "evad[ing] the ordinary checks that constrain abusive law enforcement practices: limited police . . . resources and community hostility" [id.].
The ruling has sparked debate among law professors, even though the judge has stayed the injunction pending appellate review. Orrin Kerr of the Volokh Conspiracy, for example, describes the ruling as "remarkable" (not in a positive way). Kerr finds the opinion "unpersuasive. . .quite plainly so." I tend to disagree for the reasons the judge stated. The breadth of the NSA program and the conditions of modern technology seem to beg for a different analysis to protect individual privacy. Ultimately, however, the Supreme Court will have to decide this issue.

Misplaced Focus: Procedure and Remedies Probably More Important Than Constitutional Law

Like most lawyers, Kerr and others following the case have focused on the court's discussion of the constitutional issues. This analysis, however, is probably premature or even unnecessary. The judge's ruling only held that the plaintiffs met the standard to receive a preliminary injunction. A preliminary injunction is not a final ruling on the merits. Instead, it simply keeps the defendant from enforcing the policy until a final ruling on the merits, possibly after a full trial.

While these procedural concerns might not mean much for laypersons, they are central to the case at this moment. In fact, an appeals court could overturn the ruling without even discussing the Fourth Amendment. How?

In order to get a preliminary injunction, the plaintiff must meet four factors: a likelihood of success on the merits (likely that the law favors the plaintiff); irreparable injury in the absence of the injunction (harm that monetary compensation cannot remedy adequately); public policy favors issuance of the injunction; and the balance of the equities favor the plaintiff (in the absence of an injunction, plaintiff would lose a lot more than the defendant would gain from having the liberty to enforce the policy). A plaintiff much demonstrate each factor in order to qualify for the injunction.

There are at least two ways to reverse the injunction without turning to constitutional issues (related to the Fourth Amendment).  First, the Supreme Court is very reluctant to enjoin policies related to national security. This is so, even if the defendant has violated the letter of the law. National security could provide a basis to reverse the injunction.

In Winter v. National Resources Defense Council, the Supreme Court reversed a preliminary injunction granted to halt certain naval training operations offshore in California. The plaintiffs argued that the operations could harm protected species of aquatic animals. More importantly, a federal statute literally required the military to submit an environmental impact statement before conducting the activities, but the government did not submit such a statement. Accordingly, the military violated an unambiguous statutory provision.

Despite the fact that the government violated the statute, the Court held that the preliminary injunction was improper. The Court reasoned that it could not second-guess the military on national security concerns (and that it was not clear that the activities would irreparably harm, if at all, any aquatic species). So, national security weighed against issuance of the injunction despite plaintiffs proving actual success on the merits.

The circuit court and the Supreme Court would likely apply similar logic in this case. Rather than delving into the constitutional questions -- which courts wish to avoid if possible -- the appeals court could reverse on the grounds that the opinion does not give enough weight to national security concerns.

Furthermore, the opinion does not even contain a section that "balances the equities" by weighing the harm to the plaintiffs in the absence of the injunction against the harm to the defendant if the injunction is affirmed. This, however, is a mandatory part of the test.

The procedural dimensions of this case provide ample room for reversal -- without examination of the constitutional questions. Law professors (and I am guilty of this as well) routinely rush to analyze substantive legal questions without considering procedural and remedies questions. Procedure and remedies law, however, are probably more central to this case at the moment than the constitutional questions. Accordingly, if the DC Circuit is up to speed on remedies law, I expect a reversal without much discussion of the Fourth Amendment. We shall soon see.

Of course, the appeals court might agree with the district judge -- which would require a substantial analysis of the Fourth Amendment. But, despite my belief that the policy is unconstitutional, I could easily see the appeals court allowing the Supreme Court to cover new ground on this issue; it would take a substantial effort to clarify the doctrine.

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