Lavabit Loses Its Appeal For Mucking Up Basic Procedural Issues Early On
from the unfortunate-but-messy dept
This won’t come as a huge surprise, but Ladar Levison and Lavabit have now lost their appeal on whether or not they were in contempt for failing to compromise the security of every one of Lavabit’s customers in complying with the DOJ’s demands to get access to who Ed Snowden had been emailing. The ruling does a decent job explaining the history of the case, which also details some of the (many, many) procedural mistakes that Lavabit made along the way, which made it a lot less likely it would succeed here. Let this be a massive reminder that, if you’re dealing with this kind of stuff, getting a good lawyer on your side immediately is important. Unfortunately, the procedural oddities effectively preclude the court even bothering with the much bigger and important question of whether or not a basic pen register demand requires a company to give up its private keys. As the court details, the problem seems to be how Lavabit went about the legal process here:
In the district court, Lavabit failed to challenge the statutory authority for the Pen/Trap Order, or the order itself, in any way. Yet on appeal, Lavabit suggests that the district court’s demand for the encryption keys required more assistance from it than the Pen/Trap Statute requires. Lavabit never mentioned or alluded to the Pen/Trap Statute below, much less the district court’s authority to act under that statute. In fact, with the possible exception of an undue burden argument directed at the seizure warrant, Lavabit never challenged the district court’s authority to act under either the Pen/Trap Statute or the SCA.
The court basically says that because Lavabit mucked up the process, the appeal is going to fail. It further rejects the claim that Lavabit did, in fact, challenge the Pen/Trap order when Levison objected to turning over his keys. The court notes that such a claim is a stretch.
In making his statement against turning over the encryption keys to the Government, Levison offered only a one-sentence remark: “I have only ever objected to turning over the SSL keys because that would compromise all of the secure communications in and out of my network, including my own administrative traffic.” (J.A. 42.) This statement — which we recite here verbatim — constituted the sum total of the only objection that Lavabit ever raised to the turnover of the keys under the Pen/Trap Order. We cannot refashion this vague statement of personal preference into anything remotely close to the argument that Lavabit now raises on appeal: a statutory-text-based challenge to the district court’s fundamental authority under the Pen/Trap Statute. Levison’s statement to the district court simply reflected his personal angst over complying with the Pen/Trap Order, not his present appellate argument that questions whether the district court possessed the authority to act at all.
Levison represented himself pro se at the beginning of the case (adding to the mess of procedural problems), and while his legal team tries to use that as a reason why the court should forgive some of the procedural mistakes, the court rejects that as well (even noting that, as a limited liability company, Lavabit shouldn’t have been allowed to proceed pro se in the first place).
The hail mary attempt in the case was to argue that because the underlying issues are of “immense public concern” (and they are) that the court should ignore the procedural mistakes. The court flatly rejects that notion:
Finally, Lavabit proposes that we hear its challenge to the Pen/Trap Order because Lavabit views the case as a matter of “immense public concern.” (Reply Br. 6.) Yet there exists a perhaps greater “public interest in bringing litigation to an end after fair opportunity has been afforded to present all issues of law and fact.” United States v. Atkinson, 297 U.S. 157, 159 (1936). And exhuming forfeited arguments when they involve matters of “public concern” would present practical difficulties. For one thing, identifying cases of a “public concern” and “non-public concern” –- divorced from any other consideration –- is a tricky task governed by no objective standards….. For another thing, if an issue is of public concern, that concern is likely more reason to avoid deciding it from a less-than-fully litigated record….
Accordingly, we decline to hear Lavabit’s new arguments merely because Lavabit believes them to be important.
This is unfortunate on many levels, because it’s not just Lavabit that believes these issues to be of immense public concern. Either way, this mess of a case should be a reminder that, especially when dealing with the government, it’s important to get good lawyers on your side from the very beginning.