There are two concurrent debates about the National Security Agency's bulk collection of telephone metadata. One is whether the program violates the Fourth Amendment because it's a warrantless search or seizure. The second is a statutory question: Does the law Congress passed authorize it in the first place?
A panel of federal judges on the Second Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Thursday morning in ACLU v. Clapper that the collection program isn't authorized by Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act, which the government has cited to justify the program. In short, the judges ruled that the law doesn't allow the government to collect domestic phone records, because that's not what Congress authorized in the first place.
The ACLU brought the lawsuit against James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, less than a week after Edward Snowden revealed the NSA surveillance programs in 2013. One of Snowden's first disclosures was a federal surveillance-court order for Verizon to hand over all of its domestic telephone metadata records to the NSA for a three-month period. That included records from the ACLU and its New York state chapter, both of which were Verizon customers at the time.
The Second Circuit's decision only partially addresses the lower court's ruling. While the ACLU asked the appeals court to rule on the constitutional aspect, Judge Gerard Lynch, who wrote the opinion for the panel, ruled that the fact that the program wasn't allowed by Section 215 meant the broader Fourth Amendment questions didn't need to be answered. At the same time, he acknowledged serious questions about its constitutionality: "Because we conclude that the challenged program was not authorized by the statute on which the government bases its claim of legal authority, we need not and do not reach these weighty constitutional issues."