Monday, October 29, 2012

Government Faces Skeptical Court on Standing to Challenge FISA Amendments

The Supreme Court heard oral arguments today in Clapper v. Amnesty International, the case testing the plaintiffs' standing to challenge the government's vastly expanded surveillance authority under the FISA Amendments Act, or the FAA.  We posted on the lower court ruling that a group of attorneys, journalists, and human rights organizations had standing to challenge the FAA here.

The plaintiffs always faced a unique standing problem in challenging the FAA: The very nature of government surveillance says that those surveilled cannot know that they've been surveilled, or harmed, especially when the real targets of the surveillance are the plaintiffs' overseas clients and contacts (and not immediately the plaintiffs themselves).  As a result, the plaintiffs had to argue two kinds of harm to satisfy standing requirements:  (1) that they've had to take current measures to ensure against FAA surveillance and (2) that their communications are imminently going to be surveilled (given the nature of them).

The government, on the other hand, argued that any harm is purely speculative and the result of the plaintiffs' own doing (and not the authority under the FAA), and that any harm could have occurred, anyway, but under a different surveillance authority.  (This last argument says that the plaintiffs' harm isn't sufficiently traceable to the FAA, and that a judgment on the FAA wouldn't redress the plaintiffs' harm.  Causation and redressibility are two other requirements for standing, in addition to harm.)

The Court seemed skeptical of the government's claims at arguments today.  Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan grilled SG Verrilli on his arguments, and Justices Sotomayor and Kagan seemed especially troubled that the government's position would leave the plaintiffs without any effective way to challenge surveillance under the FAA.  Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Scalia chimed in with concerns about the government's argument that it might conduct surveillance of the plaintiffs' communications under a different authority, leaving the plaintiffs unable to show causation or redressibility.  (It wasn't clear that their concerns with the government's position extended beyond that particular argument, though.)  And finally Justice Kennedy seemed especially troubled with the government's position on the attorney-plaintiffs: the government said that any decision by the attorney-plaintiffs not to communicate with overseas clients for fear of surveillance was caused by rules of professional responsibility, and not by the threat of FAA surveillance.  (Justice Kennedy's concern is one to watch.  This harm--attorney-plaintiffs curtailing communication with clients for fear of surveillance--is the most acute and well defined harm in the case.  It's also one that will resonate best with this group of nine lawyers.  And it's important that Justice Kennedy raised it: He may provide the key vote.)

In all, the government's argument came across as overly formalistic, especially considering the very high stakes for the plaintiffs.  The Court's questions seemed to highlight that.

On the other side, there was some back-and-forth on just how certain government surveillance must be to create a sufficiently likely harm--"certainly impending," or "substantial risk."  Chief Justice Roberts pushed for the former (and higher) standard, while Justice Kennedy pointed out that in those cases where we knew the government act was occurring (as here) the standard was the lower "substantial risk."  Justice Alito asked whether the plaintiffs might manufacture their own standing (and thus work an end-run around a higher "certainly impending" standard) by alleging current preventative measures as the harm--just as the plaintiffs did here.  As to the threat of surveillance and the plaintiffs' precautions against that threat, Chief Justice Roberts wondered whether that wasn't a harm in every case, e.g., in an ordinary criminal case when a criminal defense attorney seeks to get information from his or her client.  (The attorney wouldn't use e-mail or phone; he or she would talk in person.)  Finally, Justice Scalia asked whether the FISA court didn't serve as a check on Fourth Amendment violations.

If the government's argument was overly formalistic, the plaintiffs' claimed harms might have seemed too vague to some on the Court, especially if the Court adopts the higher "certainly impending" standard for the plaintiffs' claimed future harms.

Arguments today revealed what we already knew about this case: It'll be close.  But on balance, the Court seemed to favor standing.

SDS

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