A federal judge in San Francisco on Thursday dismissed two citizens’ lawsuits that accused the government of illegal dragnet surveillance of Americans’ telephone and e-mail communications.
U.S. district Judge Vaughn Walker said the citizens had no standing, or legal right, to file the lawsuit because their allegation was a “generalized grievance” that would apply to most of the U.S. population rather than an allegation of particular injury.
One of the lawsuits was filed in federal court in San Francisco in 2008 by five California citizens led by Carolyn Jewel of Petaluma.
The other was filed in New York in 2006 by four women from Brooklyn, led by Virginia Shubert, and was later transferred to Walker’s court.
Walker wrote that “the harm alleged is a generalized grievance shared in substantially equal measure by all or a large class of citizens.”
He said the U.S. Supreme Court and other federal courts have ruled that lawsuits against the government must be based on a “concrete and particularized” injury.
Lawyers from the San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation, which represented the five plaintiffs in the Jewel case, said they will appeal.
EFF legal director Cindy Cohn said, “This ruling robs innocent telecom customers of their privacy rights without due process of law.”
EFF attorney Kevin Bankston said, “The alarming upshot of the court’s decision is that so long as the government spies on all Americans, the courts have no power to review or halt such mass surveillance even when it is flatly illegal and unconstitutional.”
The lawsuits were originally filed against then-President George W. Bush, the National Security Agency and other government officials. The Justice Department of President Barack Obama continued to defend against the lawsuits and seek their dismissal.
Walker based his ruling only on grounds of lack of standing and did not address the Justice Department’s claim that the cases should be dismissed because of a risk of revealing national security secrets.
The two lawsuits were filed only against government officials and differed from about three dozen other cases filed by citizens against telecommunications companies beginning in 2006 for allegedly aiding the NSA.
The telecom lawsuits were filed in various courts around the nation and then transferred to Walker’s court. He dismissed them in 2009 after Congress passed a law retroactively granting telecom companies immunity from such lawsuits. The EFF is appealing the dismissals.
The 2008 Jewel lawsuit against the government alleged that AT&T Corp. routed a copy of Internet traffic data to a secret room controlled by the NSA at an AT&T facility in San Francisco.
A similar allegation was made in one of the previously dismissed lawsuits against AT&T.
Walker is the same judge who is currently presiding over the trial of a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of California’s ban on same-sex marriage.