ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Here in Washington, D.C., the federal government will be closed again tomorrow. And today, most government offices were dark but not the Supreme Court, at least not this morning. With rain pelting outside, the justices considered a challenge to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Recent amendments to the law broadly expanded the government's ability to conduct large-scale monitoring of international phone calls and emails. NPR legal affairs correspondent, Nina Totenberg, was at the Court for the arguments.
NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: FISA was amended in 2008 to do away with the previous requirement that the government obtain a warrant from a special intelligence court when conducting electronic surveillance of individuals abroad. Instead, the government can now monitor large swaths of people, and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court has very limited powers of supervision.
The FISA expansion was challenged in court by lawyers for detainees, human rights groups and journalists who routinely have conversations with people overseas; conversations that they say almost certainly have been monitored. They contend that by authorizing what they call dragnet surveillance, FISA violates the Constitution's ban on unreasonable searches.
Today's Supreme Court argument, however, was not about that. Instead, the issue was whether the case can be brought at all, because the government contends that unless those challenging the law can show with certainty that their conversations have been intercepted, they have no legal standing to sue.
JAMEEL JAFFER: The government's standing argument amounts to a Catch-22
TOTENBERG: The ACLU's Jameel Jaffer.
JAFFER: Their argument is you can challenge the statute if you can show that your own communications have been acquired under it, but we can't tell you whether your own communications have been acquired under it.
TOTENBERG: Inside the Supreme Court, Solicitor General Donald Verrilli faced that question immediately from Justice Sotomayor. Is there anybody that has standing to bring this challenge, she asked? Justice Ginsburg: I see a theoretical possibility, but not a real one.
Verrilli acknowledged that bringing such a challenge, quote, "may be difficult," but here, he said, the challengers are basing their claim on a cascade of speculation as to whether they have been monitored. It would not be appropriate, he said, to relax the usual requirement that a challenger show concrete injury to get in the courtroom door. Rather, the challengers should at least have to show an impending certainty of harm.
Justice Breyer: If someone is unwillingly intercepted, that's a harm, right? Answer: It may be. Justice Breyer, dryly: There may be a storm tomorrow too. Nothing is certain. Throughout the argument, though, Verrilli stuck to his guns, maintaining that the challengers have not demonstrated the kind of concrete harm the law requires in order to bring suit.
Justice Kagan: Imagine yourself in this lawyer's position, representing someone associated with a terrorist organization. You're going to be talking to the person's family members and associates. Now, as a lawyer, would you take precautions, like traveling abroad, or would you pick up the phone and start writing emails to all these people? Justice Breyer: After all, if they aren't wiretapping the people described here, who are they wiretapping?
Justice Kennedy, perhaps a swing vote in this case: I think the lawyers engage in malpractice if they talked on the telephone given this statute. But if Verrilli got a hard time, so did the ACLU's Jaffer. Justice Scalia observed that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court was set up to apply Fourth Amendment protections and that if the Court thought the law deficient, it would have done something about it.
Justice Kagan: It seems to me the government's strongest argument is that whatever precautions your clients have to take under the new law, like not using the phone, they would have had to do the same thing under the old law. Lawyer Jaffer: The new statute no longer targets just foreign agents. It reaches whole categories of people who couldn't have been reached before: witnesses, journalists, human rights investigators.
Chief Justice Roberts: Your clients are not being monitored. They're being incidentally monitored. I don't think that's exactly right, replied Jaffer, the whole point of this statute was to allow the government to collect Americans' international communications. President Bush threatened to veto the law when it was proposed that Americans' communications should be segregated in some way. Nina Totenberg, NPR News Washington.
SIEGEL: And, Nina, before you go, I have to ask why did the Court meet today when the federal government is closed because of the hurricane?
TOTENBERG: The Court is always the last to close. And I think this goes back to Chief Justice Rehnquist who was from Wisconsin. And he would see the city shut down when there was six inches of snow, and he said: Not us. Well, our current chief justice, John Roberts, clerked for Chief Justice Rehnquist, and he sort of has the same attitude. People could get to work today - too bad for the lawyers. They better be in town and ready. And everybody showed up this morning. I should say that the Court closed at 2, and it won't reopen until Wednesday.
SIEGEL: But the show must go on, we see.
TOTENBERG: The show must go on.
SIEGEL: Thank you, Nina.
TOTENBERG: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.