Supreme Court rejects domestic wiretap appeal

High court declines to take up appeal of an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit accusing the National Security Agency of illegal spying on millions of Americans.

Anne Broache Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Anne Broache
covers Capitol Hill goings-on and technology policy from Washington, D.C.
Anne Broache
2 min read

The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday declined to intervene in an appeal of a lawsuit accusing the National Security Agency of illicit spying on millions of Americans communicating with foreigners.

The American Civil Liberties Union, which filed suit in 2006 on behalf of journalists, scholars, criminal defense attorneys and Islamic-Americans, had sought review of a 2-1 decision last summer by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit to throw out its case.

The ACLU obtained a victory at the trial court level in August 2006. A federal judge in Michigan ruled that the NSA's once-secret terrorist surveillance program, which operated without court orders, "ran roughshod" over Americans' constitutional rights Americans and violated federal wiretapping law.

But the Sixth Circuit overturned that ruling on narrow procedural grounds. It determined that the ACLU and the plaintiffs didn't have legal standing to bring the suit in the first place because they hadn't shown adequate evidence that they have been "personally" subject to the eavesdropping program. The judges did not, however, take a position whether the spying program itself was legal.

The Supreme Court's decision, which arrived without comment, lets that opinion stand.

"Although we are deeply disappointed with the Supreme Court's refusal to review this case, it is worth noting that today's action says nothing about the case's merits and does not suggest in any way an endorsement of the lower court's decision," said Steven Shapiro, the ACLU's legal director.

The Supreme Court's inaction does not, however, directly affect about 40 cases pending before a federal judge in the Ninth Circuit appeals court in San Francisco.

One of them is the high-profile suit filed by the Electronic Frontier Foundation against AT&T, which is accused of opening up its network illegally to the NSA. That case and others like it have prompted a fierce fight in Congress over whether to immunize corporations who assisted government spies from such legal action.