A radical plan for shaking up the FISA court

July 9, 2013

Rep. Steven Cohen thinks he knows how to fix the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.


Chief Justice John Roberts decides who watches the spies. Rep. Steve Cohen wants him to share that power. (Michael Conroy/Associated Press)

Right now, all 11 judges are appointed by Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts. "That's a lot of similar minds being put on there," Cohen, a Tennessee Democrat, says. "We need to guarantee there's a difference of opinion."

Cohen's FISA Court Accountability Act would try to ensure that difference of opinion by splitting the power to appoint the judges: The chief justice would get to name three of the 11 FISA judges, and each of the four congressional leaders would get two appointments each. The result would be a guaranteed mixture of Republicans and Democrats serving on the court -- a far cry from the current situation, in which the court is made up of 10 Republicans and one Democrat.

Cohen's bill would also require a 60 percent supermajority for any decisions made by the full court. "If the 60% threshold is good enough for the Senate, it should be good enough for the FISA Court," he wrote to his House colleagues. And in the cases where the FISA court rules against the government and the government then appeals to the appellate court, Cohen's bill would state that only a unanimous decision on the appellate court could overturn the FISA court.

Finally, Cohen's legislation would require the FISA court to send a full copy of all decisions to the House and Senate Intelligence Committees, as well as declassified summaries of the decisions so that congressional staff without security clearances could review the documents.

The theory of the bill is simple: It tries to reduce groupthink on the court by varying the backgrounds of the judges and tries to increase congressional oversight of the court by declassifying more information about its doings.

But if the theory is simple, the path to passage is not. "We’ve sent it out for a request for cosponsors and haven’t had any responses," Cohen says. "We were really surprised."

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