These experts pointed to this week's unprecedented resignation from the government's spy court by U.S. District Judge James Robertson as an indicator of the judiciary's unease over domestic wiretaps ordered without warrants under a highly classified domestic spying program authorized by President Bush.
Sources tell CBS News that three other judges are described as "deeply upset" by the revelations, reports CBS News chief White House correspondent John Roberts.
Neither Robertson nor the White House would comment Wednesday on his abrupt resignation from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, the little-known panel of 11 U.S. judges that secretively approves wiretaps and searches in the most sensitive terrorism and espionage cases. But legal experts were astonished.
"This is a very big deal. Judges get upset with government lawyers all the time, but they don't resign in protest unless they're really offended to the point of saying they're being misused," said Kenneth C. Bass, a former senior Justice Department lawyer who oversaw such wiretap requests during the Carter administration.
"This was definitely a statement of protest," agreed Scott Silliman, a former Air Force attorney and Duke University law professor. "It is unusual because it signifies that at least one member of the court believes that the president has exceeded his legal authority."
Robertson's surprise resignation added to a chorus of pointed questions in Washington over the propriety of the surveillance, which the White House said had successfully detected and prevented attacks inside the United States.
The chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Arlen Specter, R-Pa., said he intends to begin oversight hearings in January to assess the stated justifications for the spying.
"When the attorney general says the force resolution gives the president the power to conduct these surveillances, I have grave doubts about that," Specter said.
Separately, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, Jane Harman of California, said she was informed about the program in 2003 and believes it is "essential to U.S. national security." But Harman also complained it was inappropriate for the White House to discuss the secret program only with leaders of the intelligence committees.