The Cyberlaw Clinic filed an amicus brief (pdf) last week in the United States Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit on behalf of a group of former United States Magistrate Judges, supporting the unsealing of government surveillance orders and applications. The brief supports Jason Leopold, a BuzzFeed News journalist, and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press (“RCFP”). The appeal arises out of a petition that Leopold filed in the D.C. District Court to unseal applications and orders for pen registers, trap and trace devices, tracking devices, stored email, and other types of surveillance, many of which remain sealed indefinitely in practice. He argued that, once the seal is no longer necessary, public access to these judicial records is required under the First Amendment and common law right of access to court records. Leopold was later joined by RCFP.
The parties originally worked with the United States Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia to narrow the scope of the request, but although some information was turned over, the majority of the applications and orders remained sealed. On February 26, 2018, the district court denied petitioners access to any additional old surveillance matters and granted only very limited access to surveillance applications and orders going forward. The court based its decision largely on the administrative burden the full request would place on the government.
Leopold and RCFP have appealed the district court decision to the D.C. Circuit, asking for the court to grant access to the records under the First Amendment and the common law right of access to judicial records. Although the lower court decision is specific to the context of the D.C. district, Leopold’s case has the potential to shape how federal courts generally handle requests for information regarding government surveillance practices.
Amici are all former United States magistrate judges with a shared interest in unsealing federal surveillance orders and a diverse set of experiences on and off the bench:
- Judge Mildred Methvin has served as judge in Louisiana, Maryland, and Pennsylvania and is a former AUSA. She is currently an attorney and mediator in Louisiana.
- Judge Brian Owsley has served as a judge in Texas and is a former trial attorney for the U.S. Department of Justice. He is currently an assistant professor of law at University of North Texas at Dallas College of Law.
- Judge Viktor Pohorelsky served as a judge in New York. Prior to his judicial appointment, he had a fourteen-year career as a litigator in private practice and as an AUSA.
- Judge Stephen Smith served as a judge in Texas and is the current director of the Fourth Amendment & Open Courts program at Stanford Law School’s Center for Internet and Society.
- Judge David Waxse served as a judge in Kansas and is the former President of the Kansas Bar Association and former Chair of the Kansas Commission on Judicial Qualifications.
Based on their more than 90 years of collective experience on the bench, amici explain the practical consequences of unsealing surveillance matters. Amici outline the process of unsealing surveillance applications and orders in their courtrooms and discuss places where the administrative burden can be reduced, including the shift to e-filing of sealed surveillance applications and orders.
Amici further explain why the burdens of unsealing are not as dire as the district court predicted: surveillance filings can be easily redacted, the majority of unsealings of old surveillance matters proceed unopposed, and properly redacted surveillance documents present no real risk to law enforcement practices. Amici also explain the downsides of considering government inconvenience when determining whether the public should have access to surveillance orders. As administrative practices vary greatly across judges and across government offices, taking the administrative burden into account would effectively make the common law right depend on the size, efficiency, and workload of the government office who made the request or the judge who received it.
The Cyberlaw Clinic is honored to have represented such august amici and hopes the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals will seriously consider their input. Fall 2018 Cyberlaw Clinic student Akua Abu helped develop arguments for the brief, and the brief was written by Winter 2019 student Alexandra Noonan with assistance from Clinical Fellow Kendra Albert and Clinical Instructor Mason Kortz.