Surveillance lawsuits could be dismissed

A federal judge will hold a hearing in San Francisco on Friday on the next steps in 38 domestic surveillance lawsuits in the wake of a new law protecting telephone companies from such suits.

U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker is expected to consider setting a briefing schedule and a date for a hearing, possibly in December, on the fate of the cases under the amended Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA.

A FISA amendment enacted by Congress in July after months of debate gives telecommunications companies retroactive immunity from being sued for aiding the government in warrantless surveillance of Americans' phone calls and e-mails.

The secret surveillance program was authorized by President Bush for the period of Sept. 11, 2001, to Jan. 17, 2007, and was intended to fight terrorism.

The lawsuits were filed by citizens in courts around the country beginning in 2006 and were consolidated in Walker's court for judicial efficiency.

Government lawyers in a filing last week asked Walker to start the process of tossing the cases out of court and have suggested a hearing on their dismissal motion on Dec. 11 or 18.

But lawyers for citizens suing the telecom companies said in their own filing that they plan to challenge the constitutionality of the amendment and think that issue should be decided first.

Cindy Cohn, a lawyer with the San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation, said, “We think the law is unconstitutional because Congress is essentially giving the executive branch the ability to decide legal cases in the courts. There's a separation of powers problem.”

Cohn said a second argument is that “Congress can't eliminate the Fourth Amendment rights (against unreasonable searches) of millions of Americans.”

The lawsuits also contend the program was designed for wholesale “dragnet surveillance” rather than prevention of a terrorist attack.

Electronic Frontier Foundation lawyers filed the first of the lawsuits, on behalf of four Californians against AT&T Corp., in federal court in San Francisco in January 2006. 

U.S. Justice Department lawyers said in their papers that they will defend the constitutionality of the law in later filings, but said that in brief, the FISA amendment is within Congress's “power to enact rules of law in the national interest to define who shall be liable under what circumstances.”

Meanwhile, the federal attorneys wrote, the law envisions the “prompt dismissal” of lawsuits and consideration of the government's motion for dismissal should take priority.

At the case management conference on Friday, Walker will also consider the next steps in a separate lawsuit filed by the now-defunct American branch of an Islamic charity, the Al-Haramain Islamic Foundation, against President Bush.

The group was declared a terrorist organization by the U.S. Treasury Department in 2004. Treasury officials accidentally gave the group a top-secret document, allegedly a phone log, in 2004, but the document was retrieved and courts have thus far barred the foundation from using it as evidence of its warrantless surveillance claim.

Bay Area NewsLocalsurveilanceTerrorism

If you find our journalism valuable and relevant, please consider joining our Examiner membership program.
Find out more at www.sfexaminer.com/join/

Just Posted

Demonstrators commemorated the life of George Floyd and others killed by police outside S.F. City Hall on June 1, 2020.<ins></ins>
Chauvin verdict: SF reacts after jury finds ex-officer guilty on all charges

San Franciscans were relieved Tuesday after jurors found a former Minneapolis police… Continue reading

San Francisco Unified School District Board member Faauuga Moliga, right, pictured with Superintendent Vincent Matthews on the first day back to classrooms, will be board vice president for the remander of the 2121 term. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)
Faauuga Moliga named as school board vice president to replace Alison Collins

The San Francisco school board on Tuesday selected board member Fauuga Moliga… Continue reading

Legislation by Supervisor Rafael Mandelman would require The City to add enough new safe camping sites, such as this one at 180 Jones St. in the Tenderloin, to accomodate everyone living on the street. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)
City would create sites for hundreds of tents under new homeless shelter proposal

Advocates say funding better spent on permanent housing

An instructor at Sava Pool teaches children drowning prevention techniques. (Jordi Molina/ Special to the S.F. Examiner)
Indoor city pools reopen for lap swimming and safety classes

Two of San Francisco’s indoor city pools reopened Tuesday, marking another step… Continue reading

A construction worker rides on top of materials being transported out of the Twin Peaks Tunnel as work continues at West Portal Station on Thursday, August 16, 2018. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)
SFMTA’s poor track record on capital projects risks losing ‘public trust’

Supervisors say cost overruns and delays could jeapordize future ballot revenue measures

Most Read