Tag Archives: Stephen Breyer

Justice Breyer’s Full Answer on Live Audio at SCOTUS Oral Arguments: Still Conservative with a Small “C”

During the question-and-answer portion of Justice Stephen Breyer’s international law lecture at the Brookings Institution yesterday, an audience member from the Coalition for Court Transparency asked the justice about the possibility of live streaming audio from Supreme Court oral arguments. Justice Breyer gave a nearly six-minute reply which reiterated some of the same arguments he has made against live video in the past, but the answer did contain an interesting new tidbit at the end in which he mentions recent audio “experiments” from the D.C. Circuit.

Michelle Olsen of Appellate Daily published a transcription of the last part of this answer yesterday evening. The following is my transcription of the full question and answer, which I have slightly edited for clarity.

Breyer at Brookings

The relevant question starts at the 2:12:00 mark of the Brookings Institution video.

Audience Member: Alright, this is not a hot political question; it’s a hot legal question. My name is Karl, I’m with the Coalition for Court Transparency.

You referenced five areas [where] American judges might do well to consult foreign sources or foreign legal thought. High courts in Canada and the U.K. and many, many other countries have cameras.

I don’t want to know if you support cameras, because I already know where you stand on cameras in the Supreme Court–but there’s a nice lounge at the Supreme Court where Supreme Court bar members are allowed to listen to live audio. Why don’t we allow the live audio to be transmitted outside the building, to everybody else who might not have the money or means to come to Washington, D.C. and wait in line outside in the cold, [so that they can] listen to such audio?

Justice Breyer’s answer to this question begins at the 2:14:08 mark.

Justice Breyer: Now, to give my unsatisfactory answer to [the question] about cameras in the courtroom under the guise of radio, you have to understand that it’s a pretty tough question, and we’re pretty conservative–with a small “c”–when you start talking about our institution. I mean, we don’t know what would happen if we let cameras in the courtroom. And the risks would be–two [risks], and we don’t know what the answer is. Three [risks], actually.

One risk is that people would begin to think that the oral argument–which is about 5% [of what the Supreme Court does], almost all of our material is submitted in writing–they would begin to think that that was what we’re about. The oral argument! That would be misleading, but not deadly.

What might be worse is that people do relate to people. That’s good. You relate more to your family than you relate to your friends, than you relate to people you don’t know, and people you see you relate to more than people you just hear about, and statistics you relate to not at all. OK. That’s the human condition, and I think it’s probably a good one. But the job of an appellate court–and particularly our court, which is about three levels of appellate courts, or two–is to think about how our decision is affecting the 300 million people who aren’t in the courtroom. They’re not there. But they will possibly be affected by our ruling. And people might, well, just look–to the good guy and the bad guy. And that might have an impact on the effectiveness of the Court.

Or, what is the most obvious thing, and you get privately–opposite advice from different members of the press on this one. [Voices perspective of a SCOTUS justice] “It won’t affect us! I mean, we’re grown up, we hope. And there’s the press there anyway, And why will it affect what questions I ask? I have to watch what I say anyway!” Well, apparently, I don’t. But nonetheless, you have to watch it, it’s public and the press is there, so why would this make a difference? To which some members of the press will say, you just wait ’til you see how you react when you ask a question in good faith on A, and then it’s reported on various shows on television and they show a picture of you. You’ll be pretty careful, and maybe you’ll be careful to stop asking. That might be a public benefit, but nonetheless, you see the point. And you say, go see what happens in the Senate or the House, which perhaps has to respond to public opinion.

But the reason you have a court–the reason we decide constitutional questions–if you go back to Alexander Hamilton, is–why? Because this document [takes out pocket copy of Constitution]… it treats exactly the same way the least popular and the most popular person in the United States. That’s what it’s supposed to be. And by the way, he said, we better give the Court the power to review laws–why? Because if we give the President the power to say whatever he does is constitutional or not, he’ll always say it’s constitutional, and he has enough power already.

Why not give the power to Congress?  After all, they’re elected, and many countries have done that. To which Alexander Hamilton says–he doesn’t say it in these words–he says, what happens when the decision is right but unpopular? He says, I’ll tell you about Congress–they are experts in popularity. He says, believe me, they know popularity. But what will they do when it’s unpopular? So let’s take these judges nobody’s ever heard of–they don’t have the power of the purse, they don’t have the power of the sword–fabulous. They’re weak. And give them the authority. And when it’s unpopular–unpopular and important, and by the way, possibly wrong–I mean, I’ve participated on both sides of 5-4 decisions. Not as many as you think–there may be 20% [of decisions that] are 5-4, 50% are unanimous–but somebody’s wrong in these cases. Alright, so–and that is the question I get from the President of the Supreme Court of Ghana, a woman who is trying to further democracy and civil, human rights in Ghana, and from Ouagadougou [in Burkina Faso], and from countries all over–why do people do what you say?

That’s a pretty good question. And it’s taken us–I say, there’s no answer in this document [the Constitution], and Hamilton didn’t answer it, either. He didn’t know. Nobody knew. It’s two hundred years of history. You want people in your country to follow courts and the rule of law–go out to the villages. Don’t just talk to the lawyers. Don’t just talk to the judges. By the way, there are in our country–contrary to popular belief–309 of the 310 million are not lawyers. Alright? And I say, they’re the ones that had to support sending the troops to Little Rock to enforce integration. They’re the ones that have to decide they will follow decisions that they think are really wrong and really unpopular. And that takes time. But that’s part of our job. And who knows? So I say we’re conservative with a small “c.”

And the radio? I mean, the radio–[unintelligible] they tried that in the D.C. Circuit [which has since September 2013 provided same-day audio for its oral arguments], didn’t hurt anything. Could we experiment with that? Maybe. But that’s not right in front of us. So therefore, that’s [my] not answering [the question].


As mentioned in the beginning of this post, most of Justice Breyer’s answer, which focuses on insulating the Court from the misconceptions of the public, retreads his previous statements about cameras in the courtroom. In March 2013, in response to questioning from a House Appropriations subcommittee, Breyer mentioned the Court’s conservatism with a small “c” on the issue, the potential distortion by the press, and the self-censoring effects televised arguments could have on the justices’ questioning. He said then: “I’m not ready yet. I mean, I want to see a little bit more of how all this works in practice. I’d give people the power to experiment. I’d try to get studies–not paid for by the press–of how this is working in California, of how it affects public attitudes about the law. I’d like some real objective studies–I know that’s a bore, but that’s where I am at the moment.”

In January 2014, Justice Breyer told an audience at The Washington Center for Internships and Academic Seminars that he suspects it is a matter of when, not if, oral arguments are televised, but worried about the “demonizing and angelizing” of certain members of the Court.

What made yesterday’s answer different (and encouraging for advocates of live streaming) was his begrudging acknowledgment at the end that the D.C. Circuit has adapted its procedures to make oral arguments more accessible to the public, with no harm done to the integrity or the perception of the court. I would not go so far as to call it Breyer’s endorsement of live audio–as Michelle Olsen pointed out, the D.C. Circuit still doesn’t have live audio, only same-day audio, and it’s unclear which of these two practices Justice Breyer’s musings on “experiments” referred to. Given that the Supreme Court currently releases its argument recordings just once a week on Fridays, though, even moving toward same-day audio at One First Street would be a small step in the right direction.

At Fernandez v. California Oral Argument, Supreme Court Debates What It Means To Be Roommates

At yesterday’s oral argument over a warrantless search, Breyer tries to draw lines while Scalia seems to have made up his mind. Picture via The Atlantic.
At yesterday’s oral argument, Breyer tries to draw lines while Scalia seems to have made up his mind. Picture via The Atlantic.

Last term, the Supreme Court’s Fourth Amendment cases made for some curious cross-aisle alliances, pitting a privacy-friendly Justice Scalia and his liberal colleagues Ginsburg, Sotomayor and Kagan against a government-supporting Justice Breyer and the conservative bloc of Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Alito and Thomas (and sometimes Kennedy). Wednesday’s oral argument in Fernandez v. California, however, saw Breyer and Scalia falling back along more conventionally ideological lines, with the former attempting to balance a rather unsympathetic defendant’s rights against a domestic violence victim’s needs, and the latter coming out in favor of a more expansive reading of law enforcement’s investigatory powers.

Fernandez v. California stems from a 2009 encounter between Los Angeles police and a man suspected of committing robbery and gang-related assault, who was spotted near the crime scene and subsequently seen running into an apartment. After Fernandez’s live-in girlfriend, Roxanne Rojas, opened the door for officers, fresh bruises and blood visible on her body, Fernandez told them that they could not legally come inside. He was removed from the premises anyway based on suspicion of domestic violence, arrested and taken to the police station. Two officers then returned to the apartment without a warrant and received consent from Rojas to search the premises, where they found evidence that would later be introduced at Fernandez’s robbery and assault trial, resulting in his conviction. The question before the Supreme Court now is whether the police violated Fernandez’s Fourth Amendment rights by warrantlessly searching his home with only the permission of the co-tenant girlfriend, even though Fernandez had earlier told the police in no uncertain terms that they could not enter. (If so, the state would not have been able to use the incriminating evidence from the apartment at his trial.)

In 2006’s Georgia v. Randolph, the Supreme Court established that a co-occupant’s objection to the police search of a home overrides another co-occupant’s consent if both co-occupants are present. California argues that its search did not violate Randolph because Fernandez was absent at the time the police officers returned and Rojas, as the only present co-tenant then, had the right to open her home to whomever she wished to grant entry. The removal of Fernandez from the apartment–even if it was forcible–effectively nullified his refusal to consent to a search.

Fernandez, on the other hand, interprets Randolph to mean that once a physically present co-tenant has objected to the search, “an objection… remains in effect until officers learn that the objector no longer wishes to keep the police out of his home”–or until the police get a warrant. In other words, for the seven-year-old precedent to have any force, the police must not be allowed to gain consent for a warrantless search simply by carting an objecting tenant away from the premises.

This reading of Randolph appeared to be in trouble from the moment that Justice Breyer– whose Fourth Amendment jurisprudence typically reflects an optimistic view of the government using its investigatory powers in good faith–opened questioning with a hypothetical about a domestic abuse victim who is unable to ask the police to come investigate a shared home for evidence of the crime even after the assailant has been arrested, because there is no clear probable cause for a warrant and no consent from the violent co-tenant. Breyer is clearly troubled by Fernandez’s argument, which he believes would deny Rojas her rightful authority as co-occupant to admit a visitor into their home during the 500-plus days he spent in custody.

On the other hand, Breyer, who joined the majority (and authored a concurrence) in Randolph, also doesn’t want to undermine his previous position by giving free rein to law enforcement to change presences into absences. So he tries to reconcile his vote in Randolph with his unease in Fernandez with a compromise: the known objection of a tenant who is then removed from the house by law enforcement could remain valid for a limited “reasonable time” afterward (the exact definition of “reasonable time” to be decided by the lower courts), during which the police cannot search the house without a warrant.

Unfortunately for Breyer, none of his colleagues seem terribly receptive to this idea. Of the nine justices, Alito articulates the case against Fernandez most vociferously, suggesting at several points that Georgia v. Randolph was wrongly decided and ought to be overturned entirely. “I don’t understand why the fact that one is a joint tenant is not the end of the analysis. Why shouldn’t it be?” Justice Alito asked Fernandez’s lawyer, indicating his belief that present consent should always override a present objection, much less an absent one. For Alito, Randolph has got it reversed–since he can’t imagine having the authority to ever tell his co-tenant what visitors she could or couldn’t permit into the home, Rojas’ consent alone should have disposed of the entire case.

Justice Scalia, who was in last Term’s cases a champion of privacy interests and mistrustful of government in search and seizure cases, dissented in Georgia v. Randolph, in part over concerns that abusers would use the rule privileging present objections to prevent police from investigating domestic violence, over the wishes of their battered partners. Today, he returned to that stance, telling Fernandez he was asking for an overbroad extension of a narrow ruling. Likewise, Chief Justice Roberts (who dissented in Randolph) and Justice Kennedy (who was in the majority) treated Fernandez’s Fourth Amendment rights as virtually nonexistent in this situation, repeatedly stating that assault victims should not be deprived of the law enforcement assistance they might want to ask for in the abuser’s absence. The fact that Fernandez is basically the world’s worst roommate has made this an easier case for them to decide.

USA - Politics - Supreme Court Nominee Judge Sotomayor on Capitol Hill
Sotomayor thinks the police need to try harder before resorting to warrantless searches. Picture via The New Yorker.

With the conservative justices focusing mainly on the social customs of roommates and the rights of Fernandez’s co-tenant, it fell on Justice Sotomayor, the most vocal defender of Fernandez’s position yesterday, to point out that California’s proposed reading might grant law enforcement too much control in situations where they already have a great amount of power. Sotomayor questioned the wisdom of giving the police carte blanche to manipulate Randolph’s absence/presence test –“[a]ll they have to do is arrest and remove people”– and circumvent proper search and seizure procedures. When California’s lawyer told Justice Breyer that his “reasonable time” compromise would not be a sufficiently “clear answer” for law enforcement, Sotomayor interjected: “How about a clear answer? Get a warrant.” She reiterated this point again later: “I don’t know why that’s so difficult for police officers to understand. Your first obligation under the Fourth Amendment is to get a warrant.”

While that may be true in principle, there’s an argument to be made that the Roberts Court has been slowly weakening the warrant requirement over the years, and the unsympathetic facts of Fernandez’s case surely did not help his cause. From today’s argument, it looks as though the Supreme Court will reduce Georgia v. Randolph to “nothingness,” as Justice Ginsburg mused. Sotomayor may be able to convince Ginsburg and Kagan, who both showed some discomfort with the amount of control their conservative colleagues would hand to the police. She might also get Breyer’s vote if she can somehow figure out a test that is consistent with both his Randolph concurrence and his desire to limit it in situations like these. Without the support of Scalia, however, the list of justices supporting Fernandez’s claim is stuck at four, which, in the Supreme Court, is still a losing number.

When Bad Things Happen to Good Justices: Justice Breyer Falls Off Bicycle, Part III.

It could not have happened to a nicer justice: Justice Stephen Breyer reads to children on Dr. Seuss Day in 2003. Picture via NPR.

Whenever you hear about a piece of bad news befalling a Supreme Court justice, eight times out of ten it’s going to be about Justice Stephen Breyer. The 74-year-old has been the victim of quite a few strokes of bad luck since stepping into the public eye, including a 1993 accident in which he was struck by a car while biking in Boston and suffered a punctured lung and several broken ribs, a 2011 fall off his bicycle that resulted in a broken collarbone, and not one but two home robberies in 2012 (one of which involved a machete-wielding stranger). On Saturday, the Supreme Court issued a press release stating that Justice Breyer had been involved in yet another bicycle spill, this time fracturing his right shoulder and necessitating surgery. Breyer is currently recuperating at a Georgetown hospital and is expected to be released early next week.

Perhaps partially because of his unlucky streak1 and partially because of the “lull” in Supreme Court news this weekend–oral arguments for this term just wrapped up on Wednesday and the press corps is still anxiously awaiting the Court’s opinions for affirmative action and same-sex marriage–Justice Breyer’s accident has received rather heavy coverage in the media. With all of his bike mishaps, I’m a little surprised that someone hasn’t already set up a Kickstarter campaign for getting the man a Segway. Given Breyer’s reputation as the Court’s most cheerful and optimistic justice, though, and the fact that his previous falls don’t seem to have stopped him, I’m sure Washington, D.C. residents will be seeing him zipping around on his bike again in no time. The jury’s still out, however, on just how long it will take before Justice Antonin Scalia–his long-time sparring partner and the sarcastic, temperamental yang to Breyer’s eager, sanguine yin–teases his colleague in public about this.

  1. On the bright side, it hasn’t been all bad news for Justice Breyer this month, as the francophile was recently inducted into France’s ultra-exclusive Académie des Sciences Morales et Politiques. []

Supreme Court Opinion Alert: In Kirtsaeng v. Wiley, Supreme Court Chooses Consumers of Foreign-Made Products over Copyright Holders


The American Library Association estimates that libraries in the United States contain over 200 million foreign-printed books. Picture via Wired.

Eliciting a huge sigh of relief from libraries, museums, used-car salesmen and wide swaths of eBay and Amazon, the Supreme Court held today that buyers of foreign-made works do not have to seek permission from the copyright holders to import the works into the United States. Under the 6-3 ruling in Kirtsaeng v. John Wiley & Sons, a copyright owner’s exclusive distribution rights to a product is extinguished once it is legally sold–even if the work in question was manufactured abroad and then brought overseas to be sold for a “gray market” profit.

Those who remember being broke students and working extra shifts at the university library, participating in mundane experiments for the Psychology department for a $5 bill, or balking at the price of required textbooks in the bookstore might appreciate the ingenuity of Supap Kirtsaeng. Kirtsaeng, a Thai student who had come to the United States in 1997 to study mathematics and subsequently obtained an undergraduate degree from Cornell and a Ph.D. from USC, had been looking for a way to make some cash while in the U.S. After he noticed that the textbooks he purchased in the United States were more expensive than identical Asian editions that he could buy back home, he asked friends and family to mail copies of the Asian editions to him for resale. Despite the fact that the foreign edition textbooks specifically carried a page stating that such books were not to be exported out of Europe, Asia and the Middle East, Kirtsaeng sold them in the United States, reimbursed his friends and family for the price of the books purchased in Thailand, and kept the difference.

Naturally, John Wiley, the publisher of the textbooks and the owner of Wiley & Sons Asia (the subsidiary that produced the Asian editions), did not appreciate Kirtsaeng’s moneymaking scheme and brought a copyright infringement suit once it caught wind of his business. To do this, however, they had to get around the “first sale” doctrine, an exception written into the Copyright Act which cuts off a manufacturer’s exclusive right to distribute a copyrighted work at the moment that it is originally sold. Once a lawful sale is made, the copyright holder no longer gets a say in where the product can go, and the buyer is free to do what he/she wants to do with it–whether the buyer’s purpose to gift it, put it in a library, donate it to a museum, or resell it to fellow students.

While there is no dispute that this purchaser-friendly first sale doctrine applies to domestically made works, Wiley successfully argued in lower courts that the language of the exception, as codified under Section 109(a) of the Copyright Act, only applies to works that are “lawfully made under this title.” In Wiley’s interpretation, the phrase “lawfully made under this title” limits the first sale exception to only works that are produced in territories subject to the Copyright Act (the United States), and not works that are made overseas, where the Copyright Act has no force. Under such a reading, then, Kirtsaeng needed Wiley’s permission to import the Asian textbooks into the United States and sell them there. Since he had not done so, the trial court found that he had infringed Wiley’s copyright and awarded Wiley damages of $75,000 per work, totaling $600,000 in all. The Second Circuit affirmed this ruling.

Today, however, the Supreme Court rejected that argument by a 6-3 vote, ruling that the “first sale” doctrine has no geographical limitation and does in fact apply to works manufactured abroad. Justice Stephen Breyer, writing for a majority that included Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Sotomayor, Alito, Kagan and Thomas, pointed out that Wiley’s interpretation of “lawfully made under this title” would affect many sections of the Copyright Act, leading to a parade of nonsensical and nearly-unenforceable horribles. For example, this reading would give copyright owners the power not only to control the resale but also the display of foreign-made works–the result being that tourists would not be able to attach to their cars bumper stickers bought on vacation, arcades would not be able to install video games manufactured overseas, and teachers would not be able to show their students documentaries made abroad without first obtaining permission from the copyright holder.

Breyer’s opinion snowballs on: havoc would be wreaked on museums and libraries across the country, which collectively host millions of foreign-made works. Technology companies that create products made of multiple copyrightable foreign-manufactured components would be affected. The used-car market–a good portion of which involves cars made abroad–and the $2.3 trillion imported goods market would be impacted. Looking to the text and the history of the Copyright Act and “considerations of simplicity and coherence,” Breyer concluded that Congress could not have intended such restrictive consequences. Thus, the first sale doctrine barred John Wiley from exercising distribution rights over the Asian-edition textbooks that were lawfully sold to Kirtsaeng’s family and friends.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s dissent, which was joined by Justice Kennedy in full and Justice Scalia in part, argued that the Court’s ruling “shrinks to insignificance” copyright protections against gray market unauthorized imports and hurts the U.S.’ trade interests in the long run. Characterizing Breyer’s parade of horribles as “imaginary” and “absurd,” the dissent dismissed the majority’s fear of a flood of litigation against museums and libraries and used-car salesmen, pointing out that the Copyright Act already has other exemptions that would allow for the importation, without copyright holders’ permission, of products for certain governmental, academic, educational and personal uses.

From a practical standpoint, however, it isn’t difficult to see why Breyer, and not Ginsburg, was able to line up five Justices behind his position. In the end, there are just too many things in this country that would have been swept up under Wiley & Sons’ proposed rule, and the deep fear of an ensuing legal avalanche won the day for Supap Kirtsaeng. Few things are made in the USA anymore, and foreign trade is increasingly important to the national economy. Giving publishers and manufacturers such immense and potentially perpetual power over legally sold products would have up-ended, as Breyer said, “ordinary scholarly, artistic, commercial and consumer activity,” and it is too late for Wiley to go back and change the rules that everyone has been playing by for decades. Some genies, as it turns out, cannot be put back into their Made In China bottles.

SCOTUS Opinion Alert: In Which Transparency is Dealt a Body Blow

Obama on Phone

How do you know he’s not listening in on your conversations? Answer: you don’t.

 [Photo by Pete Souza, found via the Council on Foreign Relations]

For those of us who believe that the government needs to be more transparent in matters of national security, yesterday was not a very good day. In its first 5-4 opinion of this term, the Supreme Court split along ideological lines and ruled in favor of protecting a wide-ranging international surveillance program from constitutional challenges. Specifically, the Clapper v. Amnesty International opinion makes it much more difficult for lawyers, journalists, and human rights practitioners who suspect the United States of wiretapping their communications with non-Americans abroad to bring suit for such governmental behavior unless they have concrete proof that their correspondence will be intercepted.

At issue in Clapper is the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which allows the United States to target the communications of non-citizens on foreign soil. First authorized in 1978, FISA originally limited the Government to instances where it could show probable cause (to a special closed court known as a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court) that its individual targets were “foreign powers or the agents of foreign powers.”  In 2008, however, Congress amended FISA to include Section 1881a, a provision which removed the probable cause requirement and greatly expanded both the pool of people and the kinds of communications that could be monitored.

While FISA is aimed at foreign nationals who fall outside the protection of the Fourth Amendment, one effect of the law was the warrantless interception of thousands of international communications between FISA targets and American citizens. Shortly after the passage of 1881a, a group of American legal, labor, media and human rights organizations led by Amnesty International asked the Supreme Court to overturn that provision. Claiming that they frequently communicate with non-American clients, coworkers, witnesses and sources abroad, the challengers argued that this law violated their First and Fourth Amendment rights.

Before they could even get to the constitutionality of 1881a, however, the challengers ran into a practical problem: because of the secrecy involved in such surveillance programs, they couldn’t find any hard evidence that the United States was actually looking at their correspondence. Since Article III of the Constitution requires that you show some “injury” before you can bring a suit, Amnesty International argued that the injury lay in the “objectively reasonable likelihood” their conversations were or might be intercepted. The challengers further claimed that they had suffered numerous economic and professional harms in trying to avoid these interceptions, such as having to fly abroad to speak with clients in-person rather than over phone or email, and the reluctance of sources to disclose information in light of the potential eavesdropping. In response, the United States claimed that no one in this group had standing to bring this lawsuit, because (1) FISA targets only non-Americans, and (2) they simply could not prove that they were being intercepted. After the Second Circuit agreed with Amnesty International, the United States brought an appeal.

 Justice Alito

Justice Samuel Alito, a huge fan of certainty.

[Photo via Columbia Law School]

Justice Alito’s opinion, which was joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Scalia, Thomas and Kennedy, reverses the Second Circuit ruling by accepting the Government’s stance that the challengers’ claimed injuries were too speculative to allow the suit to continue to trial. Alito found the Second Circuit’s “objectively reasonable likelihood” standard inconsistent with his reading of Supreme Court precedents, which he believes require a (much harder to show) “certainly impending” injury in order to establish standing. Ignoring the fact that it would be nearly impossible for any American to prove that the Government will monitor his correspondence under 1881a, Alito repeatedly emphasized that the challengers’ fears of future surveillance were nothing more than a “highly attenuated chain of possibilities.” Likewise, Alito brushed aside the fact that some of the challengers’ foreign contacts included the friends and family of Guantanamo detainees (including rather high-profile clients like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Mohammedou Ould Salahi) whose communications had already been monitored by the United States.

The majority opinion was also quite unsympathetic to the increased economic and professional costs of operating under 1881a, despite the fact that lawyers and journalists have an ethical duty to protect confidential communications with clients and sources:

“[The challengers] cannot manufacture standing merely by inflicting harm on themselves based on their fears of hypothetical future harm that is not certainly impending… Because [they]do not face a threat of certainly impending interception under 1881a, the costs that they have incurred to avoid surveillance are simply the product of their fear of surveillance.”

Naturally, the liberal wing of the Court, which had vociferously questioned the United States at oral argument about the fairness of a law for which virtually no one has standing to challenge, took issue with all parts of the majority opinion. The Justice Breyer-penned dissent also looked to precedent and rejected the majority’s “certainly impending” injury standard in favor of a “reasonable probability” or “high probability” injury standard:

“…[C]ertainty is not, and has never been, the touchstone of standing. The future is inherently uncertain. Yet federal courts frequently entertain actions for injunctions and for declaratory relief aimed at preventing future activities that are reasonably likely or highly likely, but not absolutely certain, to take place. And that degree of certainty is all that is needed to support standing here.”

Breyer went on to list no fewer than 18 cases in which federal courts found standing even where the likelihood of injury was “far less certain than here.” In addition, he argued that under the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Monsanto Co. v. Geertson Seed Farms, “reasonable efforts to mitigate the threatened effects of the future injury”–i.e., the economic costs that the 1881a challengers incurred in trying to keep their communications confidential–could constitute an injury sufficient enough for standing. Looking at the Government’s motive, capabilities and previous actions under 1881a and some other “commonsense inferences,” the dissent concluded that the challengers had in fact met the “reasonable probability” of injury standard and should have been allowed to contest 1881a’s constitutionality at trial.

Unfortunately, the dissenting justices were unable to convince a fifth colleague over to their side, meaning that the federal government is now incentivized to take one more step away from transparency. In his opinion, Justice Alito countered this concern by choosing to place his faith in the special Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Courts, which he believes will keep the Government accountable to the Constitution. As Justice Breyer’s dissent pointed out, however, these closed, secret courts (which do not make their hearings or records available to the public) very rarely reject any of the Government’s surveillance plans, and should not be the only safeguard for Americans’ civil liberties.  Nonetheless, the message that the Supreme Court sent yesterday is clear: the more secretive the United States keeps its national security programs, the safer they are from constitutional challenges, and the harder it is for ordinary Americans to vindicate what may be flagrant violations of their rights. We should all be very scared.