Justia Summary

Members of Muslim communities filed a putative class action, claiming that the government subjected Muslims to illegal surveillance. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) provides a procedure for consideration of the legality of electronic surveillance conducted under FISA, 50 U.S.C. 1806(f). The district court dismissed because litigation of the claims “would require or unjustifiably risk disclosure of secret and classified information.” The Ninth Circuit reversed, holding that FISA displaced the state secrets privilege.

The Supreme Court reversed. Section 1806(f) does not affect the availability or scope of the privilege for state and military secrets. The absence of any reference to the state secrets privilege in FISA indicates that the availability of the privilege was not altered.

Nothing about section 1806(f) is incompatible with the state secrets privilege. The central question under 1806(f) is whether the surveillance was lawfully authorized and conducted. Under 1806, a court cannot award relief if the evidence was lawfully obtained, whereas a court considering the state secrets privilege may order the disclosure of lawfully obtained evidence if it finds that disclosure would not harm national security. Inquiries under 1806(f) allow “review in camera and ex parte” of materials “necessary to determine” whether the surveillance was lawful. Under the state secrets privilege, however, examination of the evidence “even by the judge alone, in chambers,” should not be required if the government shows “a reasonable danger that compulsion of the evidence” will expose information that “should not be divulged” in “the interest of national security.” The Court did not decide which party’s interpretation of 1806(f) is correct, whether the government’s evidence is privileged, or whether the district court was correct to dismiss the claims on the pleadings.