State Secrets Privilege

First Monday in October

Today, as the Supreme Court opens its new term, the major news concerns a decision from last term: the solid rebuke of Citizens United by a bipartisan group of more than 50 legal scholars and public officials. The impact of that decision is poisoning election campaigns around the country and, through the Congress that will be elected as a result, will doubtless impact the lives of every American.

This term, the Court will be deciding at least one new corporate personhood case, as well as other cases affecting our most important rights, including freedom of speech, church-state separation, and due process. Some of the ones we'll be looking at:

Corporate Personhood & Privacy: AT&T v. FCC. The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) generally requires federal agencies to disclose records to the public upon request. There are numerous exceptions, such as records or information compiled for law enforcement purposes whose disclosure could reasonably be expected to constitute an unwarranted invasion of "personal privacy." The Supreme Court will decide if "personal privacy" applies to corporations, as well as to people.

Free Speech: Snyder v. Phelps. Fred Phelps and his fellow fanatics from the Westboro Baptist Church are infamous for picketing the funerals of military personnel with messages such as "God Hates Fags." According to Phelps, the deaths of U.S. servicemembers are God's punishment for the nation's tolerance of homosexuality. The Supreme Court will determine whether Phelps' funeral-picketing activities are protected by the First Amendment. The case will be argued Wednesday.

Free Speech: Schwarzenegger v. Video Software Dealers Association. The Supreme Court will address whether a California law restricting the sale of violent video games to minors violates the free speech protections of the First Amendment. California argues that states can restrict minors' access to violent material just as they can with sexual material. During oral arguments in November, we may get a sense as to whether the Supreme Court agrees.

Church-State Separation: Arizona Christian Tuition v. Winn. Arizona has a program that gives parents tax credits for tuition at private schools. Most parents use these credits toward tuition at religious schools. A group of taxpayers sued, arguing that this violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. Before the Supreme Court can decide that issue, it must first determine if the plaintiffs have standing to sue. In 2007, the Roberts Court limited the circumstances in which taxpayers can challenge government expenditures that violate the Establishment Clause, and they may do so again in this case.

State Secrets Privilege: General Dynamics v. U.S. and Boeing v. U.S. These cases are actually not about the most infamous uses of the states secret privilege, which notoriously has been used to shut down lawsuits against the government alleging U.S. complicity in torture and other illegal activities. This time, it's the federal government that has initiated the lawsuit, which raises interesting Due Process issues. These consolidated cases address whether the United States can sue two defense contractors for failing to fulfill their contractual obligations, while at the same time using the state secrets privilege to prevent the companies from presenting a defense.

Employment of Immigrants: Chamber of Commerce of the United States v. Whiting. In 2007, Arizona passed a law targeting employers who hire undocumented immigrants by revoking their licenses to operate in the state. The state law also requires employers to participate in a federal electronic employment verification system that federal law specifically makes voluntary. The Supreme Court will decide whether federal immigration legislation preempts Arizona's laws.

Preemption - Right to Sue Drug Manufacturers: Bruesewitz v. Wyeth. The federal Vaccine Act preempts certain design defect lawsuits in state court against child vaccine manufacturers "if the injury or death resulted from side effects that were unavoidable even though the vaccine was properly prepared and was accompanied by proper directions and warnings." The Bruesewitz family argues that their lawsuit isn't preempted because the side effects were not unavoidable: A safer, alternative vaccine was available. The Supreme Court will decide if the Vaccine Act preempts the family's suit.

Preemption - Right to Sue Car Manufacturers: Williamson v. Mazda. An accident victim sued Mazda in state court for negligently choosing to install a lap-only seatbelt in the back center seat instead of a safer lap/shoulder belt. However, federal car safety regulations at the time specifically allowed lap-only seatbelts. The Supreme Court will decide if Congress intended the federal safety regulations to preempt such state lawsuits.

PFAW

New Term for the Supreme Court, New Opportunities for Corporations

As detailed in PFAW Foundation’s report Rise of the Corporate Court, the Roberts Court has been routinely and consistently bending the law and the Constitution to elevate the rights of corporations over the rights of individuals. To borrow a metaphor from Chief Justice Roberts, when corporate power over employees, consumers, and the American population at large is at risk, the umpire is biased. Corporations win, people lose.

In January, this judicial tilting of the scales of justice to favor corporate America reached a new height with Citizens United.

So what’s in store for the Supreme Court term that begins next Monday? While we will not know for sure until the opinions are issued, we are beginning to see some of the cases that may become important. For instance, the Court earlier today added a number of new cases to its docket, including three focusing on the rights of corporations in what the New York Times characterizes as “unusual settings.”

In two of the cases, the justices will consider how the state secrets privilege, which can allow the government to shut down litigation by invoking national security, applies in a contract dispute between the Navy and military contractors hired to create a stealth aircraft.

In the third case, the justices agreed to decide whether corporations have privacy rights for purposes of the Freedom of Information Act. ...

The privacy case [FCC v. AT&T] will consider whether a provision of the Freedom of Information Act concerning "personal privacy" applies to corporations. ...

AT&T seeks to block the release of documents it provided to the FCC, which conducted an investigation into claims of overcharges by the company in a program to provide equipment and services to schools. The documents were sought under the freedom of information law by a trade association representing some of AT&T's competitors.

AT&T relied on an exemption to the law for law enforcement records that could "constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy." ...

The federal government, represented by Solicitor General Kagan, urged the Supreme Court to reject the argument that the exemption "protects the so-called 'privacy' of inanimate corporate entities."

This case will turn on the language and legislative history of the FOIA statute, as well as prior Court rulings. Court watchers will be looking out for any efforts by the Roberts Court to use this case, as it did in Citizens United, to aggrandize corporate power far beyond anything contemplated by the law or even the parties themselves.

PFAW

Obama DOJ Invokes State Secrets For Second Time

This Washington Post recently had a story on a second instance of the Obama Department of Justice invoking "state secrets" in an effort to shut down a lawsuit challenging violations by the Bush Administration of individuals' constitutional rights.

The first instance, in February, came in the case of Mohamed et al. v. Jeppesen, a suit challenging a company's alleged participation in the rendition of terrorism suspects to countries where they suffered torture. At that time, People For the American Way decried the "blow to our much-needed efforts to restore justice." This time the lawsuit involves allegations by the al-Haramain Islamic Foundation that the federal government used warrantless wiretaps to gather information on the charity's board members and attorneys in violation of their due process and free speech rights.

The Post story reports that in addition to invoking the state secrets privilege to terminate the lawsuit -- thereby denying the charity its day in court -- the Justice Department is also threatening to remove the documents from the district court's custody to keep them out of the hands of the charity's lawyers. No doubt there must be a careful balancing of competing interests in these kinds of cases -- legitimate efforts to protect our nation's security versus holding the government accountable for violations of individuals' constitutional rights. But I must say the balancing that appears to be going on in these instances is making me pretty nervous.

PFAW

Court Rejects State Secrets Claim in Wiretapping Suit

There was good news today from the federal court of appeals in San Francisco today:

The Obama administration has lost its argument that a potential threat to national security is a good enough reason to stop a lawsuit challenging the government's warrantless wiretapping program.

A federal appeals court in San Francisco on Friday rejected the Justice Department's request for an emergency stay. The Obama administration, like the Bush administration before it, cited the so-called state secrets privilege as its defense. The government claimed national security would be compromised if a lawsuit brought by the U.S. chapter of an Islamic charity was allowed to proceed.

You may remember that we were more than a little disappointed when the Obama Administration decided to assert its state secrets privilege earlier this month.  Today's ruling was a good sign our third branch of government is standing up for the rule of law.

PFAW