A Federal Court Upholds NSA Surveillance, Sort Of

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

In a 22-page ruling on Friday, a three-judge panel of the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the federal government in Klayman v. Obama, one of the major legal challenges to the NSA’s surveillance programs currently in the courts.

The panel’s decision vacates one of the strongest court rulings against the bulk-metadata-collection program to date since Edward Snowden revealed its existence in June 2013.

In his December 2013 ruling in Klayman, federal judge Richard Leon described the NSA’s bulk collection as “almost Orwellian” and ruled that it violated the Fourth Amendment.

The appellate panel did not address Leon’s constitutional interpretation or the legality of the NSA program itself. Instead, it focused on the issue of standing: whether or not a plaintiff had the right to bring the case before the court. Klayman sought a preliminary injunction to halt NSA metadata collection while the courts deliberated, which Judge Leon granted.

But the panel disagreed. Judges Janice Rodgers Brown and Stephen Williams ruled that Klayman had not met the high legal threshold for a preliminary injunction and remanded the case back to the lower courts for further hearings. Judge David Sentelle mostly agreed with his colleagues, but argued the court should dismiss the case altogether.

Since the D.C. Circuit’s decision focused on Klayman’s legal standing, the appellate judges did not discuss the deeper constitutional questions about the NSA’s bulk-metadata-collection program. But other appellate courts have. In May, the Second Circuit ruled in ACLU v. Clapper that the program exceeded the scope of the PATRIOT Act.