Amateur Hour?

A coyote nicknamed "Hal" sits in a cage after it was captured Wednesday, March 22, 2006. Police in New York City used a helicopter and sharpshooters armed with tranquilizer guns to capture the coyote near Belvedere Castle, close to 79th Street and Central Park West around 10 a.m.
AP Photo/NYC Dept. of Parks & Rec.
This column was written by Bryan Cunningham.
The Honorable Anna Diggs-Taylor probably means well. The lone judge in American history to order a president to halt in wartime a foreign-intelligence-collection program that has undoubtedly saved lives probably sympathizes with the journalists, and others, who are suing to stop the Terrorist Surveillance Program (TSP) in which NSA intercepts foreign-U.S. terrorist communications. She probably feels in her heart the program is wrong, and undoubtedly hears the footsteps of the federal judicial panel moving towards taking this case away from her and consolidating it with others.

We can sympathize with her motives, and even share some of her gut feelings of uneasiness about the program. But we cannot accept the stunningly amateurish piece of, I hesitate even to call it legal work, by which she purports to make our government go deaf and dumb to those would murder us en masse. Her bosses on the Court of Appeals and/or the United States Supreme Court will not accept it.

Much will be said about this opinion in the coming days. I'll start with this: I wouldn't accept this utterly unsupported, constitutionally and logically bankrupt collection of musings from a first-year law student, much less a new lawyer at my firm. Why not? Herewith, a start at a very long list of what's wrong with Judge Taylor's opinion.

Process Fouls. When you sue your plumber over a disputed $50 invoice, before deciding who wins, the judge is required to jump through some minor constitutional hoops like actually hearing evidence (as opposed to press reports), holding hearings, and reading and understanding the briefs filed and the laws at issue. Judge Taylor appears to have taken none of these rudimentary steps before issuing one of the most sweeping wartime legal rulings in our nation's history. Experts on both sides agree it is impossible to decide the crucial Fourth and First Amendment issues in this case without detailed, factual knowledge of precisely what the government is doing (see, e.g., the brief I filed with the Washington Legal Foundation, at, and the excellent testimony of David Kris, at Judge Taylor apparently needs no more facts than what she reads in the papers.

Worse, the judge clearly failed to do enough homework to understand the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act itself, much less the Fourth Amendment. She gets basic provisions of the statute itself wrong, e.g., apparently believing that a provision explicitly dealing with foreign agent/non-U.S. persons communications constitutes an "exception" to FISA's warrant requirements. She also seems to make the elementary and fatal mistake made by many commentators, that the government can, under FISA, listen in on conversations for 72 hours without meeting FISA's substantive and procedural tests. This is simply false. NSA cannot lawfully, under FISA, listen to a single syllable of a covered communication until it can prove to the Attorney General (usually in writing) that it can jump through each and every one of FISA's procedural and substantive hoops. These basic errors could have been corrected had the court bothered to gather any evidence or hold substantive hearings.

More worrisome still are the judge's breathtaking mistakes in analyzing the Fourth and First Amendments — errors that would earn our first-year law student an "F." Here's one of several examples: The judge asserts that the Fourth Amendment, in all cases, "requires prior warrants for any reasonable search, based upon prior-existing probable cause." She cites no legal authority whatsoever for this colossal misstatement of the law, because none exists. Instead, there are numerous situations where our courts have found no prior warrant is required, so long as a search is "reasonable." Fatal to her position is the very Supreme Court case she herself cites. This landmark 1972 electronic-surveillance decision, the Keith case, makes clear that, though it establishes a warrant requirement for purely domestic security cases (decidedly not what the TSP is, raising the alarming possibility the judge may think the TSP is a "domestic" program), the Fourth Amendment does not always require a prior warrant for government searches. Rather, the need for warrants depends on a balancing of the government's legitimate needs, such as protecting us from attack, against other constitutional interests.

Lest there be any doubt as to whether Keith supported Judge Taylor's view about the warrant requirement for communications with overseas terrorist groups, the Keith court stated that "the instant case requires no judgment on the scope of the President's surveillance power with respect to the activities of foreign powers, within or without this country."

While Keith at least left open the question, a post-FISA case, also cited by Judge Taylor herself (In re Falvey), could not have more clearly dispensed with her claimed warrant requirement: "When, therefore, the President has, as his primary purpose, the accumulation of foreign intelligence information, his exercise of Article II power to conduct foreign affairs is not constitutionally hamstrung by the need to obtain prior judicial approval before engaging in wiretapping."

Apparently Judge Taylor failed to read that portion of the Falvey opinion. She makes similarly striking mistakes on the issues of standing and separation-of-powers. Which brings us to the heart of the problem with the judge's missive.

Ignoring Contrary Authority. Under legal-ethics rules, deliberately failing to call to a court's attention legal authority contrary to one's position is grounds for disciplinary action. In addition to the above, here are several more examples of this unpardonable legal sin in Judge Taylor's opinion.