The bulk collection phone records program was revealed by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden and is authorized - according to the government - under Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act. The court ruled on statutory not constitutional grounds leaving the more fundamental question over Fourth Amendment concerns ultimately to the Supreme Court.
Congress is set to debate reauthorizing Section 215 later this month as its authority expires on June 1st.
The bulk collection of Americans' phone records by the government exceeds what Congress has allowed, a federal appeals court said Thursday as it asked Congress to step in and decide how best to protect national security and privacy interests. A three-judge panel of the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Manhattan permitted the National Security Agency program to continue temporarily as it exists, and all but pleaded for Congress to better define where the boundaries exist.
"In light of the asserted national security interests at stake, we deem it prudent to pause to allow an opportunity for debate in Congress that may (or may not) profoundly alter the legal landscape," the opinion written by Circuit Judge Gerald Lynch said."If Congress decides to authorize the collection of the data desired by the government under conditions identical to those now in place, the program will continue in the future under that authorization," the ruling said. "If Congress decides to institute a substantially modified program, the constitutional issues will certainly differ considerably from those currently raised."Many members of Congress who voted for the PATRIOT Act claimed ignorance after the Snowden revelations, that they never knew Section 215 would be/was being used in such an expansive way. Now the court has called their bluff and demanded Congress - fully informed thanks to Snowden - decide how far they want state surveillance powers to legally go.
The ruling also sets the stage for the Supreme Court to make a major ruling on domestic spying powers which is far from easy to predict given the variety of views both liberal and conservative justices have shown on Fourth Amendment issues.