Magistrate Judges Emboldened By Snowden, Pushing Back On Overly Broad DOJ Requests

from the good-for-them dept

A couple weeks ago, we wrote about how the judiciary was finally pushing back on overly broad and vague warrant requests from the DOJ, with magistrate judge John Facciola leading the way. That was based on a Wall Street Journal article highlighting how magistrate judges like Facciola and David Waxse have been pushing back much more regularly on requests. The Washington Post has now written a very similar article (though, like most stuck up mainstream publications, it never mentions the WSJ article that beat it to the punch) that is worth reading as well. While it repeats much of the same story from the WSJ one, it also adds some interesting details. The basic story is basically the same. Facciola and others have been pushing back steadily on requests:
Among the most aggressive opinions have come from D.C. Magistrate Judge John M. Facciola, a bow-tied court veteran who in recent months has blocked wide-ranging access to the Facebook page of Navy Yard shooter Aaron Alexis and the iPhone of the Georgetown University student accused of making ricin in his dorm room. In another case, he deemed a law enforcement request for the entire contents of an e-mail account “repugnant” to the U.S. Constitution.

For these and other cases, Facciola has demanded more focused searches and insisted that authorities delete collected data that prove unrelated to a current investigation rather than keep them on file for unspecified future use. He also has taken the unusual step, for a magistrate judge, of issuing a series of formal, written opinions that detail his concerns, even about previously secret government investigations.
The article also notes that it's very likely that the Ed Snowden revelations have played a big role in the sudden uptick in magistrate judges pushing back:
The seeds of what legal observers have dubbed “the Magistrates’ Revolt” date back several years, but it has gained power amid mounting public anger about government surveillance capabilities revealed by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden. Judges have been especially sensitive to backlash over the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which made secret rulings key to the growth of the surveillance programs.
A lawyer quoted in the article notes that the judges are now realizing that if they approve a bogus warrant, which later becomes public, it may now become an embarrassment:
“There’s a newfound liberation to scrutinize more carefully,” said Albert Gidari Jr., a partner at Perkins Coie who represents technology and telecommunications companies. “They also don’t want to be the ones who approve an order that later becomes public and embarrassing. . . . Nobody likes to be characterized as a rubber stamp.”
Of course, the inference there is depressing, if unsurprising. Back when they could work in relative secrecy, judges were a lot more willing to just go along with law enforcement. We've been saying since the beginning that transparency, sunlight and accountability are important components in maintaining the Constitution, and this newfound backbone from the judiciary certainly seems to suggest that's true. It also shows just how far-reaching the impact of Snowden's actions have been. It's not just about the NSA, but it's priming the key folks who make the federal judiciary function, the magistrate judges, sit up and pay more attention.

The other tidbit of information, is that the magistrate judges apparently all have a mailing list where they discuss some of this stuff, suggesting that this growing "revolt" (if you can call actually following the Constitution a "revolt") may continue to spread:
Magistrate judges, who do much of the routine work of the criminal justice system, influence each other through conversations at judicial conferences and through the federal e-mail system, which allows any magistrate judge to query all others on a vexing legal question with a single click of the mouse.
Perhaps even more interesting is that one of the magistrate judges handling these issues has even designed a joke t-shirt that he sends to any judges who have to rule on warrants concerning mobile phone information:
Tackling such issues, even in the face of possible reversal by higher courts, has become something of a badge of honor among some magistrates. Judge James Orenstein of Brooklyn, a former federal prosecutor who also wrote an early, influential ruling on cellphone location data, once joked with Smith that they would soon have enough like-minded magistrates to form a bowling team, Smith recalled.

That prompted Orenstein to design shirts featuring the image of a bowling ball rolling toward a cellphone and nine cell towers arranged in a triangle like a set of bowling pins. Above the image it read, “CSI: Cell Site Information.” Below it read, “Bowling for Dialers.”

When other magistrates write opinions on the issue — regardless of which side they take in the debate — they are offered one of the shirts.
While a bit more jokey than you'd normally expect from some judges, things like this certainly help remind the judges that these kinds of requests are important to pay attention to, and aren't "just another" request to rubber stamp. That's a good thing.

While the article notes that the government is starting to more aggressively appeal these magistrates (and some federal judges have been overturning them) it's still good to see the magistrates stepping up and tackling this issue.

Filed Under: 4th amendment, david waxse, doj, ed snowden, john facciola, magistrate judges, warrants


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  1. identicon
    Mel, 26 Apr 2014 @ 2:21pm

    I wonder if they'll get a copyright claim on using the CSI logo for their little joke shirt? One can wish right?

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