Judge Scalia Suggests The Supreme Court May Be Asked To Determine Constitutionality Of Metadata Program
from the might-allow-terrorism-to-trump-the-Constitution dept
The US Supreme Court has yet to take a case that directly challenges the NSA’s domestic surveillance programs, having turned down EPIC’s turnstile-jumping attempt to bring the bulk collection to the court’s attention back in November. More recently, it also declined to grant standing to a case pursued by the Center for Constitutional Rights challenging the legality of Bush-era surveillance programs.
But in a talk given at Brooklyn Law School last Friday, visiting Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia dropped hints that the telephone metadata program’s constitutionality may be put in the hands of the Supreme Court.
Mr. Napolitano then asked if mass surveillance of cellphones and emails would be prohibited by the Fourth Amendment, which states: “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated.” Many of the National Security Agency’s controversial surveillance programs were prominently exposed last year by Edward Snowden, a former security contracted who leaked sensitive documents revealing the U.S. government’s wide collection of digital data.
“You’re getting into the NSA stuff, right?” Mr. Scalia remarked–one of many snarky, laughter-drawing lines he issued throughout the evening. “This may come before the court. And I don’t want to get myself recused.” But Mr. Scalia nevertheless directly said he didn’t feel “conversations” were part of the “persons, houses, papers and effects” covered by the Fourth Amendment.
If this program does end up in front of the Court, it appears Scalia will be casting his lot with the government and its expansive reading of the Third Party Doctrine. He also suggested the Supreme Court wasn’t up to the task, albeit based on severely backwards logic.
“The Supreme Court doesn’t know diddly about the nature and extent of the threat,” Scalia said. Later on, he added, “It’s truly stupid that my court is going to be the last word on it.”
Why Scalia feels the “nature and extent of the threat” has any bearing on the program’s adherence to the Constitution is beyond me, and his apparent willingness to defer to the government’s justifications for domestic spying is troubling. This argument is on par with the City of New York arguing for the stop-and-frisk program because it was useful in fighting crime, an argument the presiding judge dismissed as irrelevant to the issue at hand: the constitutionality of the program itself.
No doubt the Supreme Court will get plenty of chances to hear the government discuss the nature and extent of the terrorist threat. But it needs to keep in mind that it’s ruling on the constitutionality, not whether the ends justify the means.
This peculiar statement is also troubling in light of Scalia’s earlier comments that same night, where he pointed out the dangers of originalism, and reinterpreting the Constitution in light of technological advances.
“It’s the freedom of speech. It doesn’t matter whether you’re speaking in semaphore or a cellphone or any type of modern technology. You apply the same First Amendment principals to the new technology that you applied to the old. And the same for reasonable searches and seizures.”
If Scalia’s going to argue that the times may change but the Constitution doesn’t, then he needs to be consistent. Just because a threat that was minimal before September 2001 is now viewed as all-encompassing by the government should have no bearing on whether the Supreme Court is capable of issuing an opinion on the constitutionality of the NSA’s domestic surveillance.
On the plus side, a person in the audience raised a question that may cause Scalia to reconsider his strict definition of what the Fourth Amendment covers.
When Mr. Scalia later took questions from audience members, a law student surprised the self-confident justice by pressing him on whether personal computer data–not conversations–should be protected. “Do you believe that data within a computer would be too broad of a construction of the word ‘effects’ under the Fourth Amendment?” the student inquired.
“Mmm! Mmm!” Mr. Scalia exclaimed to himself, clearly impressed with the line of argument but cautious about weighing in on a topic he expects to come up before the U.S. Supreme Court.
“I better not answer that,” he added whimsically. “That’s something that may well come up. It’s a really good question.”
So, that’s a bit more promising. And Scalia is just one of nine justices. With two judges having issued contrary opinions on the Section 215 program, it may be the Court’s responsibility to sort this out. Of course, this is just one of the NSA’s programs with constitutional implications, and it’s one that looks to be severely scaled back if not sacrificed completely to keep other, more intrusive programs free from additional scrutiny.