Appeals court vacates wiretapping ruling

A federal appeals court on Friday dealt a blow to civil libertarians who challenged the Bush administration's controversial domestic spying program. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit ruled 2-1 to vacate a lower court's finding that the warrantless wiretapping effort was unconstitutional.

U.S. Circuit Judges Alice Batchelder and Julia Smith Gibbons ruled against a group of lawyers, journalists and scholars led by the American Civil Liberties Union who believed they had been spied on. The Republican-appointed duo said the plaintiffs lacked standing for their claims.

ACLU Legal Director Steven Shapiro said he was "deeply disappointed" by the decision. The ruling insulates President Bush's warrantless eavesdropping from judicial review and deprives Americans of the ability to challenge illegal telephone and e-mail surveillance, he said in a press release.

The ACLU filed the suit in a Michigan federal court last January and U.S. District Judge Anna Diggs Taylor ruled favorably for the group in August, making hers the first and only decision by a federal court to strike down the program.

Taylor found that the spying ran afoul the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and said the post-Sept. 11 anti-terrorism initiative violated the separation of powers as well as citizens' rights to free speech and privacy.

The appeals court did not uphold the legality of the government spying program, Shapiro contended. The only judge to discuss the merits, Democratic appointee Ronald Lee Gilman, said in his dissenting opinion that the suit was justified and the spying had clearly violated FISA.

Justice Department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse said the court's ruling confirmed that the plaintiffs "cannot seek to expose sensitive details about the classified and important terrorist surveillance program." The program "was always subject to rigorous oversight and review," he said.

The ACLU is reviewing its legal options, including asking the Supreme Court to hear the case, Shapiro said. "In the meantime, it is now more important than ever for Congress to engage in meaningful oversight," he added.

Center for Democracy and Technology Policy Director Jim Dempsey called the ruling "unfortunate" and said it "throws the burden back on Congress, which still doesn't have the full facts."

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., issued subpoenas last month to the White House, Vice President's office and the Justice Department for documents about warrantless surveillance. The deadline for compliance is July 18.

The appeals court decision was "a disappointing one that was not made on the merits of the case, yet closed the courthouse doors to resolving it," Leahy said. He urged the administration to hand over the requested papers "so that those of us who represent the American people can get to the bottom of what happened and why."

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
Close [ x ] More from GovExec