Supreme Court won’t review telecom immunity for surveillance

October 10, 2012

(Reuters) – The Supreme Court on Tuesday rejected a challenge to a 2008 federal law granting immunity to phone companies for helping the government eavesdrop on private phone conversations.

The decision is the latest in which the court has refused to review government surveillance practices adopted since the attacks of September 11, 2001.

The case involved 33 lawsuits brought against the phone companies in 2006 after news reports that the government had conducted warrantless surveillance.

Phone customers alleged that AT&T Inc, Sprint Nextel Corp, Verizon Communications Inc and others violated federal and state law.

In reaction to the suits, Congress in 2008 passed Section 802 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which gave the Attorney General the power to grant legal immunity to anyone providing assistance to the intelligence community.

Then-Attorney General Michael Mukasey used that discretion to block the 33 suits, which were dismissed.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, the American Civil Liberties Union and others appealed, arguing that Section 802 violated the separation of powers doctrine of the U.S. Constitution.

Last December, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco rejected those arguments, finding the telephone companies immune.

Asking the Supreme Court to review that decision, the civil liberties groups said the law allowed the executive branch to conduct “warrantless, suspicionless domestic surveillance” without fear of review by courts, and gave the Attorney General sole discretion to decide when eavesdropping was necessary.

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