Factbox - Legal challenges to U.S. phone data collection

Thu Dec 19, 2013 2:52am IST

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REUTERS - U.S. District Judge Richard Leon became the first judge to rule against the U.S. government's collection of phone data in bulk when he found on Monday that the program was likely unlawful.

More rulings may be coming, because there are more lawsuits pending in federal courts around the United States that seek to end the program. Largely similar to one another, the suits argue the bulk collection chills Americans' right to association and violates their right to be free of unreasonable searches.

In response, President Barack Obama's Justice Department has cited a 1979 Supreme Court ruling that held the government could search phone records without a warrant because people have turned them over voluntarily to a third party, the phone company.

The program is also valuable in fighting militant groups such as al Qaeda, the government said.

The suits landed after Britain's Guardian newspaper reported the program's existence on June 5 and published a related court order that was labeled top secret. The newspaper later disclosed it got the order from Edward Snowden, a former National Security Agency contractor now charged criminally with unauthorized leaks of classified information.

Here are the five suits that have been filed so far. One is no longer pending.

DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA

* The first of the five suits was filed in Washington, D.C. on June 6 by Larry Klayman, a conservative lawyer, and Charles Strange, described in court papers as the father of an NSA cryptologist technician who was killed in Afghanistan in 2011. Leon held a hearing on October 31 and ruled about six weeks later. A Bush appointee, Leon wrote that the bulk collection was an indiscriminate, arbitrary invasion and issued an injunction against it. He then stayed his order pending an expected appeal, saying the national security interests were significant and the constitutional issues novel. U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, Case No. 1:13-cv-851.

NEW YORK

* The American Civil Liberties Union sued in federal court in Manhattan on June 11. The New York-based organization, which claims more than 500,000 members, frequently sues government officials when it sees what it considers violations of rights, on subjects ranging from prison conditions to overseas drone strikes. Its suit has been assigned to U.S. District Judge William Pauley, an appointee of Democratic President Bill Clinton. He held a hearing in November but has not ruled. U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, Case No. 1:13-cv-3994.

IDAHO

* Anna Smith sued in her home state of Idaho on June 12. Calling herself a phone customer, a married woman, a mom and a neonatal intensive care nurse, Smith said in her suit that none of her phone calls "relate in any way to international terrorism" and that the monitoring was distressing. She is represented by two lawyers in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, and her case has been assigned to U.S. Magistrate Judge Ronald Bush. There has been no hearing or ruling. U.S. District Court for the District of Idaho, Case No. 2:13-cv-257.

SUPREME COURT

* The Electronic Privacy Information Center went directly to the U.S. Supreme Court on July 8 in seeking to reverse the secret court order published by The Guardian. The U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court had exceeded its jurisdiction when it approved the bulk collection of phone data, said EPIC, a civil liberties group based in Washington, D.C. It said it had nowhere else to turn because other courts did not have jurisdiction to hear an appeal. The petition drew some interest among law professors and opposition from the Justice Department, but the justices denied it without comment. U.S. Supreme Court, Case No. 13-58.

CALIFORNIA

* The San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation sued on July 16 on behalf of 22 organizations including church groups and gun rights advocates. The suit emphasizes Americans' right to association under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, a right the lawyers say is jeopardized when the government knows who is talking to whom and for how long. The Justice Department said that fear is unfounded. The case is assigned to U.S. District Judge Jeffrey White, who held an initial hearing in November and scheduled another for February. He is an appointee of Republican President George W. Bush. U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, Case No. 3:13-cv-3287.

(Reporting by David Ingram; Editing by Howard Goller and Tim Dobbyn)

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