U.S. judge refuses blanket stay
of surveillance lawsuits
By Julia Cheever, Bay City News Service
February 21, 2007
SAN FRANCISCO (BCN) - A federal judge in San Francisco
Tuesday turned down a government request for a complete stay for
the time being of more than three dozen surveillance lawsuits
filed against telecommunications companies.
The lawsuits charge that the corporations - including AT&T
Corp., Verizon Communications Inc. and BellSouth Corp. - aided
the National Security Agency in alleged illegal warrantless surveillance
of Americans' phone calls and e-mails.
The first of the lawsuits, known as the Hepting case, was filed
in San Francisco in January 2006 against AT&T by four Californians
represented by lawyers from the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
Later, more than three dozen other lawsuits filed by citizens
and groups in courts around the country were transferred to U.S.
District Judge Vaughn Walker in San Francisco for purposes of
The U.S. Justice Department asked Walker to suspend proceedings
in all the cases until a federal appeals court rules on its claim
that the Hepting case should be dismissed because national security
secrets might be revealed.
Federal lawyers argued that the same danger of revealing state
secrets applies to the other cases and therefore all cases should
be stayed until the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals issues a
ruling, expected later this year.
But Walker said in a brief order Tuesday that plaintiffs in the
Hepting case can go ahead with "limited and targeted"
efforts to gather evidence, so long as the questions to be asked
of AT&T don't overlap with issues in the appeal.
The judge also said he will stay proceedings in the other cases
only if both plaintiffs and defendants agree to it. If the plaintiffs
do not agree, the defendant companies must file preliminary responses
to the lawsuits by March 29, the judge said.
Kurt Opsahl, an Electronic Frontier Foundation attorney representing
the plaintiffs in the first lawsuit, said, "The government
wanted to put this case in the deep freeze."
"Instead," Opsahl said, "the court has invited
us to move forward with some targeted questions. We're glad to
accept that invitation, which will allow progress while respecting
the government's national security concerns."
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