A federal judge in New York ruled Monday that the government can’t use a 227-year-old law to compel Apple to unlock an iPhone that may contain information useful to a criminal investigation.
The 1789 law, the All Writs Act, is also the cornerstone of the government’s argument in a related case in San Bernardino, California, where the FBI and Apple have faced off in an uncharacteristically public manner.
The Monday decision came from James Orenstein, a magistrate judge in Brooklyn, who had previously expressed doubt that the All Writs Act sanctions the government’s request of Apple.
In his opinion, Orenstein pointed to two reasons why he rejected the government’s reasoning. Orenstein said that Congress already considered legislation that would grant the government the power to ask for the assistance it seeks—but did not end up adopting it. He’s referring here a proposed extension to CALEA, a 1994 law that requires telecommunications companies to provide certain information and assistance to law enforcement. Congress debated expanding CALEA to include companies like Apple, but ultimately didn’t do so.
Second, he rejected the request because it didn’t meet a test established by a 1977 Supreme Court case. That precedent requires a judge to consider three specific factors when deciding whether or not to issue an order under the All Writs Act. The factors are: “the closeness of Apple's relationship to the underlying criminal conduct and government investigation; the burden the requested order would impose on Apple; and the necessity of imposing such a burden on Apple.” Orenstein found the government’s case wanting on all three factors.