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The Law Blogger is a law-related blog that informs and discusses current matters of legal interest to readers of The Oakland Press and to consumers of legal services in the community. We hope readers will  find it entertaining but also informative. The Law Blogger does not, however, impart legal advice, as only attorneys are licensed to provide legal counsel.
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Sunday, July 7, 2013

The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court

By: Timothy P. Flynn

A secret court; something very offensive to our Democracy.  Even as lawyers, we here at the Law Blogger had never heard of such a stealth tribunal until Edward Snowden blew the whistle on one of its rulings [i.e. the FISA Court's "classified" order to turn over all of Verizon's phone tracing data to the NSA].

Actually, the FISA Court has been around since the 1978 passage of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.  Following the September 11th terrorist attacks on our country back in 2001, FISA has been repeatedly amended, primarily through the Patriot Act.

Not surprisingly, since 9/11, FISA has expanded steadily along with the powers of the FISA Court.  The Bush Administration based its warrantless wiretapping practice on FISA; the Obama Administration, to the surprise of many of its supporters, has not only continued the program, but expanded the scope of electronic surveillance to apparently everyone in America.

The Edward Snowden case has shined a light on the 11-member FISA Court.  What that light has shown is that the secret court has evolved from providing quick case-by-case rulings on electronic surveillance scenarios, to building a body of "classified" constitutional decisions that are now hefting the weight of judicial precedent; all without a scintilla of public scrutiny.

We here at the Law Blogger would like to know:  who is on this secret court?  What decisions are they making that may affect our right to privacy?  And do we even still have a right to privacy while connected to the internet or connected to a cell phone?

The FISA Court's recent classified decisions have become so constitutionally significant that a recent NYT article compares the secret court to a "parallel Supreme Court".

One example of the shrouded jurisprudence emanating from the FISA Court is the application of the "special needs" exception to the warrant requirement of the 4th Amendment in terrorism cases.  Normally, law enforcement cannot conduct a search or seizure of a person without a warrant based on probable cause.

In 1989, SCOTUS created the "special needs" exception to the 4th Amendment's warrant requirement in the context of public transportation.  SCOTUS ruled that public railway workers could be drug-tested by the government without a warrant on the basis that the minimal privacy intrusion of the worker was superseded by the need for public transportation safety.

Apply this logic to the modern terrorism cases, and any matter that evokes our "national security" opens the door for the FISA Court to invoke the "special needs" exception.  This fast-expanding exception is now poised to swallow the 4th Amendment's warrant requirement whole.

Although we do not get to read the secret court's decisions, from which there is a very limited and rarely used appeal process, we are told -via the NYT- that a sturdy pillar of jurisprudence and precedent has arisen from the FISA Court: the collection of Metadata does not offend the 4th Amendment.

Well, ok, if the Star Chamber says so.  But we here at the Law Blogger thought that ours was an adversarial justice system characterized by thesis, antithesis, and synthesis.

Post Script: October 15, 2013 - The FISA has given the green light in several of its recent cases for the NSA to continue to collect cell phone use data on U.S. Citizens.  We wonder if our emails are also subject to NSA scrutiny...

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