The U.S. Supreme Court refused to open telecommunications companies to lawsuits accusing them of violating the privacy of millions of Americans by cooperating with government wiretaps after the Sept. 11 attacks.
The justices, making no comment, today left intact a federal appeals court decision that said AT&T Inc., Verizon Communications Inc. and Sprint Nextel Corp. were immune from suit under a 2008 law and a decision made that year by then-President George W. Bush’s administration.
Privacy advocates sought billions of dollars in damages for what they described in their Supreme Court appeal as “a massive, unlawful program of electronic surveillance, intercepting and disclosing to the government both the communications and the communications records of millions of their customers.”
The high court rebuff doesn’t affect separate claims being pressed by some of the same plaintiffs against the government.
The companies and the Obama administration urged the Supreme Court not to take up the case. The companies told the high court that Congress “determined that it was not in the national interest for these or similar cases to proceed.”
Dozens of lawsuits were filed in 2006, after Bush acknowledged the existence of a program designed to intercept terrorist communications.
The 2008 law immunized telecommunications companies if the attorney general certified that they were assisting a government investigation. Bush’s attorney general, Michael Mukasey, then made the certification, and the Justice Department asked to have the claims against the companies dismissed.
At the Supreme Court, the privacy advocates argued that the law violated constitutional separation-of-powers principles by giving the attorney general the authority to decide whether the measure applies.
A San Francisco-based federal appeals court rejected those arguments when it threw out the claims against the telecommunications companies in December.
Justice Samuel Alito didn’t take part in the court’s consideration of the appeal. He didn’t give any reason.
The case is Hepting v. AT&T, 11-1200.