A federal court in Washington yesterday took the rare step of closing an entire oral argument to the public in the case of a former FBI translator who says she was fired for complaining about security breaches.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit announced that today's 30-minute argument in the case of Sibel Edmonds, a Middle Eastern language specialist fired in 2002, will be conducted behind closed doors. The court gave no reason for its decision.
Whistleblower Sibel Edmonds had claimed FBI security lapses.
Arthur Spitzer, an attorney at the Washington office of the American Civil Liberties Union who represents Edmonds, said that he will file an emergency motion urging withdrawal of the three-judge panel's order, which he said is unconstitutional. Spitzer said the order is puzzling because it seems to permit participation by attorneys on Edmonds's legal team who do not have security clearances.
At times, courts of appeals have ordered parts of arguments closed when they must address classified material, Spitzer said. Marilyn R. Sargent, chief deputy clerk of the D.C. Circuit, said that closures of entire oral arguments, while rare, "have occurred before."
The Washington Post and 12 other media organizations also filed an emergency motion urging the court to open the arguments.
The Justice Department declined to comment. It has urged dismissal of Edmonds's case and contends that the litigation could lead to disclosure of classified information. But the court decided to close today's hearing without a request from the government.
U.S. District Judge Reggie Walton dismissed Edmonds's suit in July, based in part on sealed affidavits from Justice Department officials. The appellate panel, made up of Chief Judge Douglas H. Ginsburg and Judges David B. Sentelle and Karen LeCraft Henderson, may wish to discuss that material.
Edmonds, who was not a full-time civil servant, has sued the government for violating her rights under the First Amendment and for violating her privacy rights by allegedly leaking information from her personnel file.
Earlier this year, Justice Department Inspector General Glenn A. Fine concluded that the FBI was lax in investigating Edmonds's allegations and that the bureau fired her as a contract employee in part because of her complaints.
But Fine neither affirmed nor rejected the allegations of security breaches.