Could the Supreme Court stop the NSA?

July 9, 2013

Every few months, the Obama administration asks the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to order Verizon (and, presumably, other phone companies) to continue turning phone calling records over to the National Security Agency. Under the rules of the FISC, Verizon's customers—the people whose private information is being disclosed—are not allowed to challenge the orders.

(Reuters/Larry Downing)
(Reuters/Larry Downing)

But the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a Washington-based advocacy group, has a plan to challenge the spying program: Ask the Supreme Court to step in. Ordinarily, it takes years of litigation in lower courts before an issue can reach the nation's highest court. But EPIC has gone straight to the top, arguing in a Monday filing that the unusual structure of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court gives victims of the NSA's program no other choice.

The Supreme Court has the power to issue an order called a "writ of mandamus" to deal with lower courts that overstep their legal authority. This type of order is only supposed to be used in "exceptional circumstances." But EPIC argues that the NSA's phone records program is exactly the kind of situation that merits the Supreme Court's intervention.

The phone records program is based on Section 215 of the Patriot Act, which is supposed to be used to obtain business records related to a terrorist investigation. The government argues that Verizon's entire phone records database is relevant to counterterrorism efforts and can therefore be obtained with a single court order.

EPIC says such a broad order is inconsistent with Congress's intent. It says Congress intended the orders to be used for informaiton related to a specific investigation, and the calling records of millions of Americans can't possibly qualify. Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), author of the Patriot Act, agrees with EPIC. But before it can reach the merits of this argument, it needs to convince the Supreme Court that the FISC's order is exceptional enough to justify an intervention from the high court.

Much of EPIC's request is focused on persuading the Supreme Court that the FISC's call records order is exceptional. It quotes a 2006 statement by then-Sen. Joe Biden, who argued that if the government obtains an individual's calling records, it can "get a pattern about your life that is very, very intrusive." It notes that EPIC itself communicates with clients, donors and journalists, and argues that government surveillance of these communications can hamper the organization's constitutionally protected activities. Finally, EPIC argues that the phone records program could run afoul of the separation of powers, since the database includes information about the personal communication of members of Congress and judges.

If the Supreme Court grants EPIC's request to review the Verizon order, it would be the first time the nation's highest court has reviewed a decision of the secretive FISA court. And it would give the judicial branch an opportunity to get input from the public on an issue that has, until now, been litigated almost entirely in secret.

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Lydia DePillis | July 9, 2013