Warrantless Surveillance Suits Consolidated in California Court

In what appears to be a victory for plaintiffs, a decision was made last week to consolidate seventeen class action lawsuits against telecom providers that are cooperating with the U.S. government’s widespread surveillance of its customers. These cases will be moved to the California federal court where the first suit was filed against AT&T in January by the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

The consolidation decision was reached by the Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation, which determined that the judge in the EFF case, Vaughn Walker, was already well versed in the issues and that the litigation pending in his court is more advanced than any of the other suits.

The Bush administration and the telecom companies had wanted the cases consolidated for security reasons, but were hoping to have them then moved to a federal court in Washington, D.C.

The panel, however, ruled that because none of the seventeen actions were pending in the District, moving them there made little sense. “Centralization in the District of Columbia forum would thus require the very duplication and expansion of access to classified information that the Government deems to be so perilous,” it said.

Victory in Walker’s Courtroom

The EFF had already won a significant victory in Walker’s courtroom when he rejected a motion by the government to dismiss the case. That ruling is pending before an appeals court, and further court proceedings have been stayed until a verdict on the government’s appeal has been reached.

It made sense to have the cases consolidated in the San Francisco court, Kurt Opsahl, staff attorney for the EFF, told TechNewsWorld.

“We want to press this forward as quickly as possible and get a court to stop this illegal practice. Ourcase is significantly further along than many of the others. Meanwhile, millions of AT&T customers are under surveillance.”

Go for Broke

The downside to the consolidation strategy, suggested Lily Coney, associate director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), is that one adverse ruling could result in the dismissal of all seventeen cases.

Opsahl, however, does not view this as a major drawback. “Of course it would be interesting to get several different judges’ opinions on the issue,” he acknowledged. Eventually, he said, there is thepossibility the cases will wind up before the Supreme Court. In this scenario, he says, it would be evenmore helpful to have several court and even appellate court rulings.

All of that, Opsahl said, is still highly speculative, however.

Coney agreed that the path forward remains unclear. “At this point, it is a wait and see process — anything could happen in one of these decisions,” she told TechNewsWorld. “The most important thing is to get that surveillance program reviewed by the juridical system.”

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