The law behind the A.P. phone-record scandal

Lynn Oberlander writes: The cowardly move by the Justice Department to subpoena two months of the A.P.’s phone records, both of its office lines and of the home phones of individual reporters, is potentially a breach of the Justice Department’s own guidelines. Even more important, it prevented the A.P. from seeking a judicial review of the action. Some months ago, apparently, the government sent a subpoena (or subpoenas) for the records to the phone companies that serve those offices and individuals, and the companies provided the records without any notice to the A.P. If subpoenas had been served directly on the A.P. or its individual reporters, they would have had an opportunity to go to court to file a motion to quash the subpoenas. What would have happened in court is anybody’s guess — there is no federal shield law that would protect reporters from having to testify before a criminal grand jury — but the Justice Department avoided the issue altogether by not notifying the A.P. that it even wanted this information. Even beyond the outrageous and overreaching action against the journalists, this is a blatant attempt to avoid the oversight function of the courts.

It is not, again, as if the government didn’t have options. The D.C. Circuit (in a 2005 opinion upholding a finding of contempt against the Times’s Judith Miller and Time’s Matt Cooper for refusing to testify about who had disclosed Valerie Plame’s identity as a C.I.A. operative) has held that there isn’t a First Amendment privilege for journalists to refuse to testify before a criminal grand jury, as has the Second Circuit (in a 2006 case in which the government was trying to find out who told the Times about a planned raid on two foundations suspected of providing aid to terrorists). In the wake of the decisions, there was a renewed effort to pass a federal shield law—though the proposed law would not have provided absolute protection in cases of national security — but, with the rise of WikiLeaks, that discussion died.

The Times’s case provides the facts most similar to the A.P.’s. The prosecutor had asked the Times to provide phone records; when the Times refused, he threatened to get the records directly from the phone companies. The Times then went to court and sought a declaratory judgment that its records were protected by reporter’s privilege. The Second Circuit ruled that phone records — even those held by a third party, such as a phone company—were subject to the same common-law privilege that would apply to the journalists’ own records. However, the court noted that there wasn’t a constitutional privilege to refuse to disclose such records to a criminal grand jury, and that any common-law privilege would be not absolute but “qualified” — meaning that it could be overcome by a compelling government interest. The Circuit, however, declined to define the privilege, other than to say that it wouldn’t stand up in the case before it.

Crucially, though the Times lost that case, 2–1, all of the judges agreed that government could not act unilaterally, without judicial review. [Continue reading…]

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