No Comment — July 29, 2013, 11:36 am

The G.O.P.’s Surveillance Judiciary

Is it possible to simply disband the partisan FISA court?

Illustration by Terry Stevenson, Harper's Magazine, December 1974

Illustration by Terry Stevenson, Harper’s Magazine, December 1974

In Friday’s New York Times, Charlie Savage takes a closer look at the judges hand-picked by John Roberts for the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court.

Ten of the court’s 11 judges — all assigned by Chief Justice Roberts — were appointed to the bench by Republican presidents; six once worked for the federal government. Since the chief justice began making assignments in 2005, 86 percent of his choices have been Republican appointees, and 50 percent have been former executive branch officials.

Not surprisingly, the Times review shows that Roberts has fashioned a court in his own image: movement conservative, Republican, largely consisting of persons who previously worked in the government. In sum, Roberts has picked a court that can be relied upon to quickly approve any government request for surveillance, through whatever instruments and according to whatever rules the government wishes.

The two chief justices who preceded Roberts, William H. Rehnquist and Warren E. Burger, were also conservative Republicans, and like Roberts they also ensured that a majority of the FISA court’s judges were conservative Republicans. However, neither of his predecessors was nearly so obsessive about it as Roberts — two-thirds of their selections were Republicans, while for Roberts, all but one have been Republican.

Equally consequential, to my mind, are the legal backgrounds of the judges selected. As Connecticut senator Richard Blumenthal, a career prosecutor, has explained, “Judges who used to be executive-branch lawyers were more likely to share a ‘get the bad guys’ mindset and defer to the Justice Department if executive-branch officials told them that new surveillance powers were justified.”

The division forming over National Security Agency surveillance is hardly a conventional partisan split. Those who hold or are in the thrall of executive power — the Obama Administration, the Democratic and the G.O.P. congressional leadership — want to safeguard its secrets from the American public. Their interest was laid bare in curious fashion near the end of a recent House hearing on the NSA scandal. Virginia Republican Bob Goodlatte asked the government’s most senior intelligence lawyer, Robert S. Litt, whether he really believed the government could keep such a vast surveillance program a secret forever. “Well,” Litt replied, “we tried.”

Standing in opposition to the NSA’s surveillance overreach is an ad-hoc coalition of civil-liberties Democrats and libertarian Republicans. An amendment they introduced in the House to this end failed last week by a vote of 217 to 205, after last-minute arm-twisting from G.O.P. congressional leaders and senior Obama officials secured the tiny margin of victory. The winning votes may have come from representatives who are opposed to the breadth of the NSA programs but believe the agency should have time to wind them down. Leaders in both camps expect the NSA’s surveillance frolic-and-detour to be curtailed when its current authorization period expires, a point on which senior Republican congressman Jim Sensenbrenner (Ill.), an author of the Patriot Act provisions used to justify the surveillance, has lately been emphatic.

The special judicial body put in place by FISA to check government surveillance activities has been transformed by John Roberts into a cheerleader for such programs. This judicial adulteration leaves NSA critics in Congress with little alternative but to push for laws establishing further limits on NSA activities — though even if they manage to pass such a law, they must be wary of the demonstrated ability of the Justice Department, the NSA, and the FISA court to find secret “understandings” of statutes that justify unforeseen forms of overreach.

The Roberts Court, as we might as well call the FISA body, has stumbled in upholding the ongoing expansion of government surveillance, and is justifiably drawing fire from Congress and the public over its demonstrated failures of judicial detachment and objectivity. But is it possible to simply disband the court? In the end, there is no getting around the need for a judicial check in the surveillance process. It would make far more sense to let the terms of the current judges lapse at the end of this year and require that new members be appointed, with those now serving precluded from another term. And the process by which new members are appointed must ensure that the new court is representative of the federal judiciary as a whole. That might be achieved by any of a number of proposals pending in Congress, but it surely won’t occur if John Roberts is allowed to continue to appoint the FISA court’s members.

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Ashley arrived for her prenatal appointment at Black Hills Obstetrics and Gynecology, in Rapid City, South Dakota, wearing a black zip-up hoodie and Converse sneakers.1 To explain her absence from work that morning — a Tuesday in April 2015 — she had told a co-worker that she was having “female issues.” She was twenty-five years old and eight weeks pregnant. She had been separated from her husband, with whom she had a five-year-old son, for the better part of a year. The guy who’d gotten her pregnant was someone she’d met at the gym, and he’d made it abundantly clear that he wanted nothing more to do with her. Ashley found herself hoping that the doctor would discover some kind of fetal defect, so that her decision would be easier. She glanced across the waiting room at a television playing a birth-control ad and laughed darkly. “Jesus, Lord, it would be so nice if someone just pushed me down a flight of stairs.”

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Ashley arrived for her prenatal appointment at Black Hills Obstetrics and Gynecology, in Rapid City, South Dakota, wearing a black zip-up hoodie and Converse sneakers.1 To explain her absence from work that morning — a Tuesday in April 2015 — she had told a co-worker that she was having “female issues.” She was twenty-five years old and eight weeks pregnant. She had been separated from her husband, with whom she had a five-year-old son, for the better part of a year. The guy who’d gotten her pregnant was someone she’d met at the gym, and he’d made it abundantly clear that he wanted nothing more to do with her. Ashley found herself hoping that the doctor would discover some kind of fetal defect, so that her decision would be easier. She glanced across the waiting room at a television playing a birth-control ad and laughed darkly. “Jesus, Lord, it would be so nice if someone just pushed me down a flight of stairs.”

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“Big, fat zero, unfortunately,” Degen said, making a 0 with her fingers. The last doctor who provided abortions in Rapid City retired in 1986, three years before Ashley was born.

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Ashley arrived for her prenatal appointment at Black Hills Obstetrics and Gynecology, in Rapid City, South Dakota, wearing a black zip-up hoodie and Converse sneakers.1 To explain her absence from work that morning — a Tuesday in April 2015 — she had told a co-worker that she was having “female issues.” She was twenty-five years old and eight weeks pregnant. She had been separated from her husband, with whom she had a five-year-old son, for the better part of a year. The guy who’d gotten her pregnant was someone she’d met at the gym, and he’d made it abundantly clear that he wanted nothing more to do with her. Ashley found herself hoping that the doctor would discover some kind of fetal defect, so that her decision would be easier. She glanced across the waiting room at a television playing a birth-control ad and laughed darkly. “Jesus, Lord, it would be so nice if someone just pushed me down a flight of stairs.”

In the exam room, she perched on the table with her feet crossed at the ankles, her blond hair brushing the back of her pink hospital gown. “I don’t know what’s available for me here,” she told her doctor, Katherine Degen, who sat facing her on a stool. “I figured nothing.”

 Some names and identifying details have been changed. 

“Big, fat zero, unfortunately,” Degen said, making a 0 with her fingers. The last doctor who provided abortions in Rapid City retired in 1986, three years before Ashley was born.

The baby was due in November, when Ashley, who was a nurse, hoped to be enrolled in a graduate program to become a nurse practitioner. Getting pregnant as a teenager had forced her to put that dream on hold, but she had thought that she was finally ready; she had even submitted her application shortly before the March 15 deadline. For the first time in her adult life, Ashley felt as if her plans were coming together. Then she missed her period.

It would be too difficult to attend school as a single mother of two, Ashley knew. She had made an appointment for three weeks from now at the nearest abortion clinic, in Billings, Montana, 318 miles away. But just a week and a half ago, her husband had said he wanted to get back together and offered to raise the child as his own. Was it a sign that she was meant to continue the pregnancy? As a rule, Ashley approached her problems with resolve. She was capable and tough; she liked shooting guns and lifting weights. She kept track of her stats and checked off her goals as she achieved them one by one. Yet the dilemma before her had shaken her confidence. She leaned back and turned to watch the ultrasound screen. The black-and-white image danced. A sharp, fast thumping emerged from the machine. As Degen removed the wand, Ashley wiped the corner of her eye.

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