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Saturday, February 22, 2014

A Secret Court Making Secret Laws? That's No Democracy

Last December, well before the Ed Snowden leaks revealed some information about the FISA court (FISC) and its rulings, we had already noted that the court itself was almost certainly unconstitutional. More recently, we talked about how the fact that all the court's judges are appointed by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court means that the court has turned into a rubber stamp made in the image of some of the most "law and order"-minded Chief Justices from the past few decades. Ezra Klein has since expanded on that to discuss the oddity of how current Chief Justice John Roberts is basically the Chief Justice of the Surveillance State, answerable to absolutely no one: "You have exclusive, unaccountable, lifetime power to shape the surveillance state."

Over the weekend, the NY Times put out a powerful piece discussing how FISC has basically become a shadow Supreme Court, doling out all sorts of important rulings in total secrecy. It rules on cases where it only hears one side, and where there are no appeals, no guarantee that the full story is presented, and involves a bunch of judges who tend to have law enforcement backgrounds before being appointed to the court. In the end, you have a secret court issuing secret rulings by ex-law enforcement officials, allowing their former colleagues ever greater power to spy on everyone.
The 11-member Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, known as the FISA court, was once mostly focused on approving case-by-case wiretapping orders. But since major changes in legislation and greater judicial oversight of intelligence operations were instituted six years ago, it has quietly become almost a parallel Supreme Court, serving as the ultimate arbiter on surveillance issues and delivering opinions that will most likely shape intelligence practices for years to come, the officials said.

[....] Unlike the Supreme Court, the FISA court hears from only one side in the case — the government — and its findings are almost never made public. A Court of Review is empaneled to hear appeals, but that is known to have happened only a handful of times in the court’s history, and no case has ever been taken to the Supreme Court. In fact, it is not clear in all circumstances whether Internet and phone companies that are turning over the reams of data even have the right to appear before the FISA court.
As an example of how FISC has basically completely overturned the rules of surveillance in secret, the NY Times reveals the details of some of its thinking, taking a extremely narrow ruling meant to apply in special cases, and turning it into a general rule that has allowed the vast capture of information:
In one of the court’s most important decisions, the judges have expanded the use in terrorism cases of a legal principle known as the “special needs” doctrine and carved out an exception to the Fourth Amendment’s requirement of a warrant for searches and seizures, the officials said.

The special needs doctrine was originally established in 1989 by the Supreme Court in a ruling allowing the drug testing of railway workers, finding that a minimal intrusion on privacy was justified by the government’s need to combat an overriding public danger. Applying that concept more broadly, the FISA judges have ruled that the N.S.A.’s collection and examination of Americans’ communications data to track possible terrorists does not run afoul of the Fourth Amendment, the officials said.

That legal interpretation is significant, several outside legal experts said, because it uses a relatively narrow area of the law — used to justify airport screenings, for instance, or drunken-driving checkpoints — and applies it much more broadly, in secret, to the wholesale collection of communications in pursuit of terrorism suspects. “It seems like a legal stretch,” William C. Banks, a national security law expert at Syracuse University, said in response to a description of the decision. “It’s another way of tilting the scales toward the government in its access to all this data.”
I don't care where you come down on the importance of widespread surveillance -- I just don't see how you can possibly square the above interpretation of the law with the 4th Amendment. If "special needs" can be used to justify mass collection of data on just about everyone "just in case" it might stop some sort of terrorist attack, then you no longer have a 4th Amendment. At all.

But, the bigger issue here is just the fact that we have a secret court issuing secret interpretations of the law that have a massive impact on our privacy. This is supposed to be an open democracy. An open democracy doesn't involve secret courts and secret laws. We have laws that everyone knows, and which the public can discuss and weigh in on through their elected officials. When you set up a secret court, making secret rules with no oversight, and with all of the judges appointed by a single Supreme Court Justice with a particular bias, you no longer have a functioning democracy at all. And that's downright scary.

This is a point that some Senators have been making for years now, but the leaks from Ed Snowden have really made it that much clearer just how insane the situation is. Earlier, it had seemed like perhaps there was one or two rulings from FISC that had some oddities in the interpretation, and which should probably be revealed to the public. However, the various revelations so far suggest that the issue is much, much bigger, and we have a secret "shadow court" system that is systematically obliterating the 4th Amendment and helping to create and then "legitimize" the vast surveillance state.

The Snowden leaks have shone a number of lights on various bad things within our government, but one thing that they have made abundantly clear is that the FISC needs to go. Whether that means it needs to be opened up, or to have greater oversight, or just be done away with completely, could be up for discussion. But if it remains the way it is, it's clear that we've thrown away our basic democratic principles, and moved towards the same sorts of autocratic regimes with secret courts that the US has always presented itself as being against.

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