March 5, 2008 | By Hugh D'Andrade

Plaintiffs Speak Out Against Telecom Immunity

The Bush administration and its supporters have repeated complaints about "greedy trial lawyers" so many times that they're beginning to sound like one of those clips on the Daily Show -- you know, the ones that show talking points being repeated so many times that it becomes painfully obvious how politicians use catch phrases to manipulate public opinion?

A couple of op-ed pieces appeared this week taking the "trial lawyer" meme to task for it's obvious weaknesses. Both were penned by plaintiffs in the suits objected to by the President -- suits headed by EFF that seek to hold telecoms accountable for their participation in the NSA's massive and illegal warrantless wiretapping program.

Journalist Peter Sussman writes in the Sacramento Bee says that he doesn't stand to win any money in these suits, but he does hope "to open to public scrutiny the actions of corporations and government that have teamed up to deny citizens the rights guaranteed by law."

As a journalist working out of a home office, I communicate with many sources by telephone. I have written extensively on those most secretive of government institutions, prisons. Frequently, important revelations about the administration of prisons and the effects of our sentencing policies come to the public only because confidential informants risk their livelihoods to blow the whistle on corruption, incompetence and cruelty in these institutions. As a journalist, I can offer sources little more than the protection of confidentiality for their courage.

In the Chicago Tribune, an author, a physician, a State Representative and a Chicago corporation counsel have teamed up to write Why We Sued the Phone Company." The four plaintiffs -- Studs Terkel, Quentin Young, Barbara Flynn Currie and James Montgomery -- say they aren't "trial lawyers." And they say they deserve their day in court to find out just what the government has been doing with their phone records:

The Bush administration and its supporters in Congress complain that these lawsuits are simply about money and enriching trial lawyers -- suggesting that the litigation should be stopped because of the potential damages that might be awarded in such lawsuits. This criticism ignores the fact that, according to the rules in the federal court, the only way that we could ensure that a federal judge could continue to explore previous violations if the companies simply changed their participation or the government changed or ended the program was to ask for minimal damages. We are not interested in recovering money for ourselves, nor is our counsel, the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois. We, however, are committed to assuring that these giant companies are punished for violating the law and thus dissuaded from violating the law in the future.

More important, amnesty not only lets the companies off the hook without answering any questions, it assures that the American people will never learn about the breadth and extent of the lawless program. Some seem to suggest that we should not have our day in court because a select few members of Congress have been able to review documents about the spy program operated by the White House. The judgment of a few Washington insiders is not a substitute for the careful scrutiny of a federal court.

There are the voices of the real people behind these cases -- and each one represents thousands of innocent Americans whose rights were violated when their phone company illegally handed their records and calling data to the NSA without a court order or warrant. If Congress passes retroactive immunity to telecom lawbreakers, it will be an attempt to deprive these people of their day in court.


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