Ultra-secret national security letters that come with a gag order on the recipient are an unconstitutional impingement on free speech, a federal judge in California ruled in a decision released Friday.
U.S. District Judge Susan Illston ordered the government to stop issuing so-called NSLs across the board, in a stunning defeat for the Obama administration’s surveillance practices. She also ordered the government to cease enforcing the gag provision in any other cases. However, she stayed her order for 90 days to give the government a chance to appeal to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.
“We are very pleased that the Court recognized the fatal constitutional shortcomings of the NSL statute,” said Matt Zimmerman, senior staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which filed a challenge to NSLs on behalf of an unknown telecom that received an NSL in 2011. “The government’s gags have truncated the public debate on these controversial surveillance tools. Our client looks forward to the day when it can publicly discuss its experience.”
The telecommunications company received the ultra-secret demand letter in 2011 from the FBI seeking information about a customer or customers. The company took the extraordinary and rare step of challenging the underlying authority of the National Security Letter, as well as the legitimacy of the gag order that came with it.
Both challenges are allowed under a federal law that governs NSLs, a power greatly expanded under the Patriot Act that allows the government to get detailed information on Americans’ finances and communications without oversight from a judge. The FBI has issued hundreds of thousands of NSLs over the years and has been reprimanded for abusing them — though almost none of the requests have been challenged by the recipients.
After the telecom challenged the NSL, the Justice Department took its own extraordinary measure and sued the company, arguing in court documents that the company was violating the law by challenging its authority.
Posts tagged ‘Circuit Court’
In upholding the conviction of Josue Acosta Marquez, (a.k.a. Martin Contreras-Pulido) in an interstate marijuana smuggling case, the Circuit Court judges wrote that federal agents and Iowa cops did nothing wrong when they planted the electronic monitoring device on a pickup truck used by Marquez while it was parked at a Wal-Mart. Police accessed the unit seven times to change the batteries -- always in a public place -- and tracked the pickup as it drove between Des Moines and Denver.
Since anyone can see a vehicle parked or driving in public places, the use of electronics to enhance surveillance doesn't violate Fourth Amendment rights regarding unreasonable search and seizure, wrote Justices Roger Wollman, James Loken and John Gibson.
No warrant neeeded. And there's nothing stopping cops from planting those suckers as often and wherever they like, says the Eighth Court judges.
First, I have always thought that extended surveillance of a home or moving vehicle, beyond say a few hours, should require a warrant, even if it is all performed in public places. I think most folks would consider such actions by a private party to be intrusive (thus many state stalking laws) and we generally hold the state to an even tighter standard.
Second, cost is important. A surveillance approach that is difficult and expensive is less likely to be abused than one that is suddenly 10x or even 100x less expensive. The judges acknowledge this, but then ignore the problem completely in their statement when they write:
It is imaginable that a police unit could undertake "wholesale surveillance" by attaching such devices to thousands of random cars and then analyzing the volumes of data produced for suspicious patterns of activity. Id. Such an effort, if it ever occurred, would raise different concerns than the ones present here.
Just get a freaking warrant -- its not that hard, especially in this case when we are talking about extended surveillance and no particular rush to get started. This kind of lazy law enforcement has become endemic, and we shouldn't tolerate it.
This decision by the Supreme Court may be a surprise to anyone who reads the regular media, which long ago fricasseed Skilling. But Houston attorney Tom Kirkendall has been covering the Enron-related cases for years, and has reported on any number of prosecutorial abuses. As he writes:
On the heels of the U.S. Supreme Court's decision earlier this year to hear Conrad Black's appeal of his criminal conviction on honest services wire-fraud charges under 18 U.S.C. § 1346 ("Section 1346), the Court yesterday granted former Enron CEO Jeff Skilling's appeal on similar grounds. A copy of the Skilling's cert petition and its appendix, which are bookmarked in Adobe Acrobat to facilitate ease of review, can be downloaded here.
My sense is that Skilling has a good chance of having the Supreme Court overturn his conviction. Here's why.
The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeal's decision in Skilling's appeal... is looking by the minute similar to the Fifth Circuit's decision in the Arthur Andersen case that was overturned by a unanimous Supreme Court
This is the ironic gist of the appeal in layman's terms:
Honest services wire-fraud under Section 1346 was intended by Congress to penalize corporate executives and governmental officials for accepting bribes and kickbacks and for engaging in self-dealing at the expense of the employer-- i.e., the private gain requirement of the crime.
The Task Force faced a big problem with prosecuting Skilling at all because he never stole a dime from Enron (that is, no private gain). In fact, the Task Force conceded at trial that, not only did Skilling not embezzle any money from Enron, the case against him was not about "greed," that Skilling always sought to pursue Enron's "best interests," and that every act for which he was being prosecuted was undertaken for the purpose of protecting Enron and promoting its share price.
Despite the foregoing, the Task Force persuaded U.S. District Judge Sim Lake to allow the prosecution to proceed against Skilling on a much broader honest services theory -- that is, that Skilling simply took on too much risk for the long-term good of Enron and improperly touted the company to the markets.
However, all corporate executives take business risks and promote their companies, so a rule that criminalizes any business decision that seems imprudent to prosecutors or lay jurors operating with hindsight bias -- even if if the executive was pursuing the interest of the company -- would force corporate executives to proceed at peril of criminal liability in making day-to-day business judgments. Indeed, in a civil case, Skilling would have had the protection of the "business judgment rule" for his business decisions, but the Enron Task Force's theory of honest services in Skilling's case provided for no such defense. Instead, the Task Force lawyers urged the jury to send Skilling to prison effectively for life simply because he breached his duty to do his job and do it appropriately.
Meanwhile, Skilling may also get a new trial from the 5th Appeals court based on charges of prosecutorial abuse:
In that regard, the Fifth Circuit decision invited Skilling to file a motion for new trial based on issues of prosecutorial misconduct that Skilling raised in the appeal after discovering the evidence post-trial. Specifically, the Fifth Circuit was particularly concerned about the failure of the Enron Task Force to comply with federal rules requiring the disclosure of exculpatory evidence to the defense from the Task Force's pre-trial interviews with main Skilling accuser, former Enron CFO Andrew Fastow.
This is welcome news for those of us who do business on US Forest Service lands, but pretty surprising coming from the 9th Circuit:
Judges aren't professional land managers.
The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals acknowledged as much July 2, after
spending the past few years micromanaging the Forest Service in a
series of court decisions that forest industry groups called
In a landmark ruling July 2, the Ninth acknowledged that it erred in
its interpretation of a key environmental law and botched Mineral
County's post-burn case.
"We misconstrued what the NFMA (National Forest Management Act)
requires of the Forest Service," a panel of 11 judges admitted in a
ruling released July 2. "We made three key errors in [the post-burn
case]...Today, we correct those errors."
ruling in "Lands Council v. McNair," involving an Idaho project,
overturned a 2-1 decision from 2005 in "Ecology Center v. Austin."
McNair and Austin are the forest supervisors for the Idaho Panhandle
and Lolo national forests, respectively.
The dramatic ruling concluded by suggesting that the Ninth should weigh
other public interests in the future, not just claims of potential
"Though preserving environmental resources is certainly in the public's
interest, the [Idaho Panhandle] Project benefits the public's interest
in a variety of other ways," the ruling stated. "According to the
Forest Service, the Project will decrease the risk of catastrophic
fire, insect infestation, and disease, and further the public's
interest in aiding the struggling local economy and preventing job
The US Forest Service's mission is a mixed bag, requiring it to balance mining, timber harvesting, recreation, and environmental preservation on its lands. Such a mixed mission is virtually doomed to failure in today's political climate. This virtually impossible balancing act has been made more difficult with the recent explosion of lawsuits from environmental groups all attempting to narrow the USFS mission to preservation alone, to the exclusion of other missions. The 9th Circuit has to date been a leading facilitator of this process of placing preservation ahead of all other goals, in direct contradiction of the will of Congress in any number of pieces of legislation.
The U.S. Supreme Court declined Monday to hear a challenge to
Alabama's ban on the sale of sex toys, ending a nine-year legal battle
and sending a warning to store owners to clean off their shelves.
An adult-store owner had asked the justices to throw out the law as
an unconstitutional intrusion into the privacy of the bedroom. But the
Supreme Court declined to hear the appeal, leaving intact a lower court
ruling that upheld the law.
Sherri Williams, owner of Pleasures stores in Huntsville and
Decatur, said she was disappointed, but plans to sue again on First
Amendment free speech grounds.
"My motto has been they are going to have to pry this vibrator from my cold, dead hand. I refuse to give up," she said.
The appeals court made this distinction:
Williams had asked the Supreme Court to review a decision by the
11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that found Alabama's law was not
affected by a U.S. Supreme Court decision knocking down Texas' sodomy
Texas sodomy law involved private conduct, while the Alabama law
regulated commercial activity, the appeals court judges said. Public
morality was an insufficient government interest in the Texas case but
was sufficient in the Alabama case, they said.
Now, I don't in any way shape or form see any differences between "private conduct" and "commerce." How in the hell can sexual decisions between consenting adults be any different, legally, than commercial transactions between consenting adults. It is a distinction that socialists have been succesful in introducing in the US, and to which many now cling.
The interesting part is to consider the folks who are fighting the sex toy ban. My wild guess, which may be off the mark, is that this is not a bunch of Christian conservative Republicans. My guess is that these folks are probably a bit left of center, and further, that many of them accept and support the notion that the government has every right to regulate dirty old commerce, but no right to regulate one's "private life." Well, maybe now it will be clearer, at least to some, how dangerous this distinction is. As a parting note, it has been two years now since we saw the irony of left-leaning members of the Supreme Court overrule state laws allowing medical marijuana use based on the commerce clause.
After more than a decade, the US may finally allow Mexican truckers on US highways, something we actually agreed to in NAFTA:
The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals inlate on
Friday denied an emergency petition sought by the Teamsters
union, the Sierra Club and consumer group Public Citizen to
halt the start of a that was approved by
Congress after years of legal and political wrangling.
I guess I can understand the Teamsters attempt to have the government shield them from competition -- that has practically become a national sport. And I presume that the Sierra Club has some environmental concerns with Mexican trucks, though that seems flimsy given trucks must meet US environmental requirements and my guess is that Mexican trucks are at least as fuel efficient as US trucks. But how can a nominal consumer group possibly justify this action? Blocking competition in any part of the economy can only increase prices and reduce choices for consumers, particularly in an area like trucking that has almost no impact on the safety of the products actually being shipped. I wish I could say this was some strange exception, but consumer groups have for years backed protectionist efforts that do nothing but hurt consumers.
Apparently I am required by law to fill out an "annual accommodation report" from the US Census. Just what I needed. The IRS, state sales tax authorities, and the Department of Commerce all gather this same information, but for some reason the Census Bureau needs me to repackage it for them ("estimate time only 34 minutes -- thanks alot"). In fact, they need the data so bad that I am required by law to respond to their request.
Here is the weird part. First they ask for revenues including both lodging revenues and sales of merchandise, all as one single number. Then, they ask for "operating expenses" in which they want me to exclude the cost of any merchandise sold. What is the point of gathering a revenue number that includes merchandise sales but a cost number that excludes the cost of goods purchased for resale? Bizarre. My only guess is that this is so they can stack industries up without double counting, but that makes no sense either. If this were the case, they would ask me to eliminate all product purchases (e.g. toilet paper for the bathrooms, cleaning supplies). Also, wouldn't they in that case also ask me to leave out services purchased from other companies?
Postscript: The form has this notice: "Your report to the Census Bureau is confidential by law. It may be seen only by persons sworn to uphold the confidentiality of Census Bureau information and may be used only for statistical purposes. The law also provides that copies retained in your files are immune from legal process."
Does anyone above the age of eight really believe this? Ask major league baseball players what they think about promises of confidentiality and immunity from legal process. (emphasis added)
With Barry Bonds still in their sights,
federal investigators probing steroids in sports can now use the
names and urine samples of about 100 Major League Baseball players
who tested positive for performance enhancing drugs, following a
ruling Wednesday from a federal appeals court.
The 2-1 decision by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals
overturned three lower court decisions and could help authorities
pinpoint the source of steroids in baseball. It could also bolster
the perjury case against the star outfielder, who is under
investigation for telling a grand jury he never knowingly used
Investigators seized computer files containing the test results
in 2004 during raids of labs involved in MLB's testing program. The
samples were collected at baseball's direction the previous year as
part of a survey to gauge the prevalence of steroid use. Players
and owners agreed in their labor contract that the results would be
confidential, and each player was assigned a code number to be
matched with his name.
The Supreme Court on Monday refused to hear the appeal of Jose
Padilla, a U.S. citizen held in a military jail for more than three
years as an "enemy combatant." The Court, however, declined to dismiss
the case as moot, as the Bush Administration had urged. Only three
Justices voted to hear the case, according to the order and
accompanying opinions. The case was Padilla v. Hanft (05-533).
The decision was a victory for the Bush Administration in one
significant sense: by not finding the case to be moot, the Court leaves
intact a sweeping Fourth Circuit Court decision upholding the
president's wartime power to seize an American inside the U.S. and
detain him or her as a terrorist enemy, without charges and -- for an
extended period -- without a lawyer. The Court, of course, took no
position on whether that was the right result, since it denied review.
The Second Circuit Court, at an earlier stage of Padilla's own case,
had ruled just the opposite of the Fourth Circuit, denying the
president's power to seize him in the U.S. and hold him. That ruling,
though, no longer stands as a precedent, since the Supreme Court
earlier shifted Padilla's case from the Second to the Fourth Circuit.
I don't even pretend to understand all the procedural stuff, but I find it amazing that the effective suspension of habeas corpus, particularly when the "war" and "enemy" that is used as its justification is so amorphous and open-ended, isn't something the Supreme Court would like to sink its teeth into.
Apparently, the Justices were reluctant to address the case since it has now been made "hypothetical" by the transfer of status of Padilla from enemy combatant held incommunicado indefinitely to a more mainstream justice track. However, this transfer occurred, as the appeals court pointed out angrily, in a transparent effort by the Bush administration to avoid judicial review of indefinite detentions. Which raises the possibility that the administration could hold hundreds of people in such detention, systematically changing the status of any individual whose case comes for review, thereby avoiding review of the program in total. As Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote, "Nothing prevents the Executive from returning to the road it earlier constructed and defended."
One wonders by this logic if the segregationist south could have indefinitely postponed Supreme Court review via Brown vs. Board of Education just by letting individuals like Linda Brown individually into white schools whenever their cases got to the Supreme Court.
And still I ask, as I did here, where the hell is Congress? I am sorry the Supreme Court failed to review this but the Constitution created this group called the legislative branch that is supposed to have the power to change the law. If law is unclear here, they could make it clear.