Judge Richard Leon of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia
Judge Richard Leon of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia (Photo: Diego M. Radzinschi / NLJ)

Two federal judges came to such widely different conclusions about the government’s telephone surveillance program in December that the U.S. Supreme Court likely won’t ignore the issue.

The conflicting opinions — issued 11 days apart — have ushered the judiciary into the national debate over National Security Agency powers that followed the leak of classified documents in June, and that now includes calls for reforms from Congress and the White House.

In Washington, U.S. District Judge Richard Leon called the NSA phone data bulk collection program “almost-Orwellian.” U.S. District Judge William Pauley III in New York, in contrast, wrote approvingly that “this blunt tool only works because it collects everything.”"They are both in English,” Orin Kerr, a George Washington University Law School professor, said of the rulings. “Other than that, they are polar opposites.”

How the intermediate appellate courts rule on the challenges to the constitutionality of the NSA’s collection of telephone call records would affect the odds of Supreme Court intervention, court watchers said. “There are too many variables, including statutory and related nonconstitutional questions,” University of Chicago Law School professor Eric Posner said. “It will be easier to make a prediction once we have seen some court of appeals opinions. If, for example, Pauley is upheld and Leon is reversed, it is unlikely that the Supreme Court will review.”

The U.S. Department of Justice on Jan. 3 announced its appeal of Leon’s ruling to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. A day earlier, the American Civil Liberties Union filed its notice of appeal to take the case to the Second Circuit.Leon ruled on Dec. 16 in Klayman v. Obama that the NSA’s telephony metadata program — which gathers details including time and duration about all telephone calls placed in, to and from the United States — “almost certainly” infringes constitutional protections against unreasonable searches and seizures. But in American Civil Liberties Union v. Clapper, Pauley concluded on Dec. 27 that the practices are lawful under the Fourth Amendment.

Leon, a George W. Bush appointee, was skeptical of the government’s claim that the protection of national security justifies the data gathering, saying that James Madison “would be aghast” at the program. Pauley, a Bill Clinton appointee, argued the surveillance program is reasonable due to the “horrific” consequences of terrorism. “The September 11th terrorist attacks revealed, in the starkest terms, just how dangerous and interconnected the world is,” Pauley wrote in the opening sentence of his ruling.

If the court does take up one of the cases, Posner predicts the justices will rule for the government and uphold the surveillance program. “The actual invasion of privacy under this program is limited, and there is no evidence of abuse,” Posner said.The Supreme Court already has ruled in a case dealing with post-9/11 NSA surveillance that may color its consideration of the metadata collection program. In Clapper v. Amnesty International, decided in February 2013, the court ruled that human rights advocates lacked standing to challenge the interception of calls involving foreign terror suspects. The 5-4 decision was based in part on the unlikely prospect that phone calls involving the parties would be intercepted.

But four dissenters, led by Justice Stephen Breyer, said “commonsense inferences” suggested that the challengers’ calls might well be intercepted. Recent changes in the law, Breyer wrote, made it possible for the government to “obtain court approval for its surveillance of electronic communications between places within the United States and targets in foreign territories.” In a talk at the Aspen Institute in July, Breyer said the news of the broader NSA surveillance program revealed by former contractor Edward Snowden came as no surprise to him. “When I read these articles, I didn’t find too much I hadn’t read” in the briefing of the Clapper case, Breyer said.


In November, Democratic Sens. Mark Udall of Colorado, Ron Wyden of Oregon and Martin Heinrich of New Mexico urged Solicitor General Donald Verrilli Jr. to correct “incomplete or misleading representations that we believe were made by the government to the Supreme Court in Clapper v. Amnesty.” They said the government failed to inform the court that a secret interpretation of the law allowed broader surveillance of calls within the United States.

Udall, Wyden and Heinrich are also making their NSA concerns heard on Capitol Hill — and meeting opposition. The trio is fighting Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who backs legislation that would allow the NSA’s data collection programs to continue subject to transparency and privacy provisions. The bill cleared the panel in October on a 11-4 vote, with Udall, Wyden and Heinrich, along with Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), voting against it.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) has introduced a bill that aims to rein in the NSA’s data gathering. Leahy, who plans to hold a hearing on NSA reforms on Jan. 14, has said that the surveillance programs are far broader than most Americans understand and that “modest transparency and oversight provisions are not enough.” The bill has support from Republicans, including Sens. Mike Lee of Utah and Rand Paul of Kentucky. Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), chairman of the House Judiciary crime and terrorism subcommittee, introduced a version in the House.

Snowden’s classified document disclosures to The Guardian newspaper and The Washington Post pushed the NSA discussion into the open — and could potentially lead to reforms irrespective of how the cases play out in court. “It is a debate that should have been started by elected officials and not by a government contractor,” Wyden said on the Senate floor in July. Following Leon’s ruling, Wyden wrote on his Twitter account: “Pretty astounding when a fed. judge says ‘James Madison … would be aghast’ while describing a surveillance practice.”

At a news conference last month, President Obama, noting the public debate and commenting on Leon’s ruling, said it’s clear “people are concerned about the prospect, the possibility of abuse, and I think that’s what the judge in the district court suggested.”

Obama said Leon’s decision “obviously” differs from decisions in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which had also assessed the constitutionality of the NSA program. “The question we’re going to have to ask is, can we accomplish the same goals that this program is intended to accomplish in ways that give the public more confidence that, in fact, the NSA is doing what it’s supposed to be doing?” Obama said.

Contact Andrew Ramonas at aramonas@alm.com, Todd Ruger at truger@alm.com and Tony Mauro at tmauro@alm.com.