Edward Snowden.
Edward Snowden. (The Guardian)

News coverage that formed the foundation for lawsuits challenging the merit and scope of government surveillance programs was awarded one of journalism’s top prizes Monday.

The Washington Post and The Guardian shared this year’s Pulitzer Prize for public service for reporting on secret documents leaked by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden.

Initial reports on the leaks in the summer of 2013 provided the basis for a string of lawsuits against the federal government. The leaks prompted U.S. officials to confirm certain details about the existence and scope of surveillance programs, which were used by plaintiffs to bolster claims of constitutional violations.

As federal appellate courts weigh the constitutionality of surveillance programs disclosed by the leaked documents, the Pulitzer, along with other prizes awarded this year to reporters who covered the leaks, underscored “that the public interest in this information is at its most profound,” said First Amendment lawyer Laura Handman, co-chairwoman of the appellate practice at Davis Wright Tremaine.

In December, U.S. District Judge Richard Leon of the District of Columbia found the bulk collection of telephone metadata “almost certainly” violated the Fourth Amendment. He noted The Guardian’s early coverage of the leaks, which prompted U.S. officials to confirm that certain call records were being collected en masse.

Unlike previous cases that failed because plaintiffs couldn’t prove their information was the subject of surveillance, Leon found the challengers now had evidence to show they had standing to sue. The U.S. Department of Justice is appealing Leon’s decision.

A federal judge in New York also found the American Civil Liberties had standing to challenge the bulk collection of phone records, citing The Guardian’s early reporting and confirmations by U.S. officials, but ruled the surveillance program was legal. That case is also on appeal.

The Snowden leaks and subsequent news coverage also spurred public debate about the operations of the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which reviews government requests for electronic surveillance under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

The Pulitzer “reinforces as well that this journalism was courageous and important, and exactly what journalism is all about, which is being the fourth branch of government,” Handman said.

In a statement published by The Guardian, Snowden said Monday’s Pulitzer announcement “is a vindication for everyone who believes that the public has a role in government.”

The decision to award the Pulitzer for coverage based on Snowden’s leaked information was met with some criticism. “Awarding the Pulitzer to Snowden enablers is a disgrace,” Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., wrote on Twitter shortly after the awards were announced. King has called on the U.S. government to prosecute Snowden to “the fullest extent of the law.”

Contact Zoe Tillman at ztillman@alm.com. On Twitter: @zoetillman.