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A View from Brad King

Court Blocks Separate AT&T Lawsuit

A California court found that an AT&T government wiretapping trial could move forward, but a similar Chicago lawsuit was dismissed.

  • July 26, 2006

Multiple lawsuits have been filed against AT&T following the telecommunications company’s role in aiding U.S. government surveillance of domestic phone calls was revealed. The suits have been varied in their nature, although each is fundamentally about challenging the company’s decision to turn over customer information to the government without requiring a court order to do so.

Because the suits have been filed by various groups, in various states, and in various federal jurisdictions, following the results is nearly impossible. Here’s the most recent example of how difficult this case is becoming.

Last week, a California federal court found that a legal action brought against AT&T could proceed, in large measure because so many news organizations have now written about the ins-and-outs of the domestic surveillance program that it can’t be reasonably argued by the government that proceeding to trial would release state secrets.

At the time, that ruling seemed like a slam dunk for the Electronic Frontier Foundation (the group that brought the case) and others.

Not so fast.

Yesterday, a federal judge in Chicago – in throwing out a class-action lawsuit against AT&T – ruled that news accounts of the domestic surveillance program do not constitute an official description of how the program worked, and thus could not be used to ensure that no state secrets would be revealed, according to this article in the New York Times.

From the article:

In his decision yesterday, Judge Kennelly said there had been no comparable confirmation by the government or AT&T of “the existence or nonexistence of AT&T’s claimed record turnover.” He refused to rely on news accounts of the program as proof of its existence and noted that “no executive branch official has officially confirmed or denied the existence of any program to obtain large quantities of customer telephone records.”

However, the judge also wrote in his decision that, although it appears as if the two rulings stand in contrast to each other, they can be reconciled in such a way that both can stand, despite their vastly different takes on media accounts of the program.

While that is good news for the EFF and other organizations seeking legal recourse, the Chicago ruling ensures that legal challenges to any case will face lengthy legal appeals that challenge the foundation of the lawsuits. Regardless of the outcome of the various suits, if a high court eventually agrees with the Chicago position – that trials could possibly expose state secrets – any previous rulings may be cast aside.

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