San Francisco - A federal judge today dismissed dozens of lawsuits over illegal domestic surveillance of American citizens, ruling that telecommunications companies had immunity from liability under the controversial FISA Amendments Act (FISAAA). The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) California and Illinois affiliates are planning to appeal the decision to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, arguing that FISAAA is unconstitutional.
"We're deeply disappointed in Judge Walker's ruling today," said EFF Legal Director Cindy Cohn. "The retroactive immunity law unconstitutionally takes away Americans' claims arising out of the First and Fourth Amendments, violates the federal government's separation of powers as established in the Constitution, and robs innocent telecom customers of their rights without due process of law."
Signed by President Bush in 2008, the FISAAA allowed for the dismissal of the lawsuits over the telecoms' participation in the warrantless surveillance program if the government secretly certifies to the court that the surveillance did not occur, was legal, or was authorized by the president. Then-Attorney General Michael Mukasey filed that classified certification with the court in September and demanded that the cases be dismissed.
"The immunity legislation that the court upheld today gives the telephone companies a free pass for flouting the law and violating the privacy rights of millions of their customers," said Ann Brick, ACLU of Northern California staff attorney.
In today's ruling, Judge Walker left the door open to accountability for the government, holding that "plaintiffs retain a means of redressing the harms alleged in their complaints by proceeding against governmental actors and entities who are, after all, the primary actors in the alleged wiretapping activities." EFF is also suing the government for the illegal surveillance in a separate case, Jewel v. NSA.
EFF and the ACLU are co-coordinating counsel for all 46 outstanding lawsuits concerning the government's warrantless surveillance program. Additionally, EFF is representing the plaintiffs in Hepting v. AT&T, a class action lawsuit brought on behalf of millions of AT&T customers whose private domestic communications and communications records were illegally handed over to the National Security Agency.
"By passing the retroactive immunity for the telecoms' complicity in the warrantless wiretapping program, Congress abdicated its duty to the American people," said EFF Senior Staff Attorney Kurt Opsahl. "Now it is up to the Court of Appeals to stand up for the Constitution, and reverse today's decision."
For the full order from Judge Walker:
Media Relations Director
Electronic Frontier Foundation
Media Relations Director
ACLU of Northern California