Standing and Secret Surveillance

9 I/S: J.L. & Pub. Pol'y for Info. Soc'y, 2014, Forthcoming

American University Washington College of Law Legal Studies Research Paper

28 Pages Posted: 9 Nov 2013

Date Written: November 8, 2013


This essay, part of a symposium on the law and policy regarding U.S. surveillance programs, seeks to provide a comprehensive assessment of the relationship between the Supreme Court's Article III standing doctrine and efforts to challenge (and/or reform) secret government surveillance programs.

In light of the Supreme Court's February 2013 decision in Clapper v. Amnesty International, most have assumed that standing imposes fatal obstacles to judicial review of such programs (if not all secret government conduct) on the merits--even after Edward Snowden's disclosures of the government's bulk telephony metadata collection and PRISM surveillance programs. Indeed, Justice Scalia's opinion for the Court in Lujan v. Defenders of Wildlife appears to bar Congress from conferring standing where it would not otherwise have existed. As Part I documents, though, upon closer examination, Justice Kennedy's far narrower concurrence in Lujan leaves at least some room for Congress to "fix" Clapper by lowering the burden of proof that plaintiffs must surmount in challenges to secret surveillance. Instead, the real problem with such a "fix" is not its constitutional validity, as Part II explains, but its long-term utility and efficacy as a policy matter.

With that in mind, Part III considers an alternative possibility — that, instead of empowering individuals like the Clapper plaintiffs to bring civil suits challenging secret government surveillance programs (which may very well defeat the purpose of secret surveillance), Congress might provide for greater (secret) adversarial process before the FISA Court itself. As Part III explains, such reforms would raise no new Article III concerns in the FISA Court, but would trigger difficult questions about standing to appeal — especially after the Supreme Court’s decision in the Proposition 8 case. To be sure, there may well be a workaround for the appellate standing problem. But, as the essay concludes, the standing questions underscore the extent to which an increase in quasi-adversarial litigation cannot be the sum total of efforts to “reform” the foreign intelligence surveillance activities of the U.S. government, at least for those who truly believe that such reform is warranted.

Keywords: standing, surveillance, Clapper, NSA, FISA, special advocate, counterterrorism, Lujan, case-or-controversy, adverseness, appellate standing

Suggested Citation

Vladeck, Stephen I., Standing and Secret Surveillance (November 8, 2013). 9 I/S: J.L. & Pub. Pol'y for Info. Soc'y, 2014, Forthcoming, American University Washington College of Law Legal Studies Research Paper, Available at SSRN:

Stephen I. Vladeck (Contact Author)

University of Texas School of Law ( email )

727 East Dean Keeton Street
Austin, TX 78705
United States
5124759198 (Phone)

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