Case Number: 0:20-mc-00082
Court: U.S. District Court for the District of Minnesota
Application to Unseal Filed: Dec. 8, 2020
Background: The Stored Communications Act allows the government to obtain, among other things, the content of a subscriber’s electronic communications, including, for example, the content of email communications, by obtaining a warrant. Transparency reports from electronic communications service providers indicate that the government has successfully sought a substantial number of SCA warrants from district courts across the country each year, and that such requests have increased over the years, affecting thousands of people.
SCA warrants and related court records, including dockets, are routinely filed and maintained under seal in federal district courts around the country despite no statutory basis for such sealing. These documents are filed and kept under seal without any stated reason provided as to why such secrecy is necessary, or showing that such sealing is narrowly tailored to serve a compelling interest. As a result, in most federal jurisdictions, the press and public have no way of knowing how many SCA warrants the government applies for, what kinds of records it’s seeking, what information the government presented to support its warrant applications, and how many of the applications are granted or denied. Such information is necessary to understanding how and why the government uses its surveillance powers to obtain private electronic communications records, and the judiciary’s role in authorizing government requests to do so.
The Samuelson Law, Technology and Public Policy Clinic at UC Berkeley School of Law is representing the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press in a lawsuit asking the Minnesota federal district court to unseal SCA warrant applications, supporting materials and any related court orders pertaining to inactive investigations from Jan. 1, 2018, through the date of the court’s order, as well as all docket sheets reflecting SCA warrant applications filed during this time period. The Reporters Committee’s application argues that the press and public have both a common law and First Amendment right of access to judicial proceedings and related documents, including SCA warrant materials and dockets.
The Reporters Committee is also asking the court to require that all SCA warrant materials be made public moving forward when the corresponding investigation becomes inactive, and that any SCA warrant materials still sealed 180 days after filing automatically be made public unless the government can demonstrate a compelling interest in keeping the materials sealed, and that the government’s request for continued sealing is narrowly tailored to serve that interest. The application also requests that all docket sheets reflecting SCA search warrant materials be publicly accessible moving forward.
The application explains that access to this information is essential to maintaining trust in the courts, promoting fairness and the appearance of fairness in the judiciary, and keeping the press and public informed about both the judicial process and how the government wields its statutory surveillance powers under the Stored Communications Act.
Quotes: “The extent to which court records reflecting judicial authorization for the government to use statutory surveillance powers are routinely hidden from public view is an affront to the public’s common law and First Amendment rights to access court documents and proceedings,” said Katie Townsend, legal director for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. “The Reporters Committee is committed to increasing transparency in such matters so that the public can understand how courts consider and decide whether the government can obtain individuals’ electronic communications. Such transparency is essential to public oversight of the government’s use of its surveillance authority and to ensuring trust in the judicial process.”
“Court records contain important insights into how the government wields its surveillance authority to search our email, our social media accounts and online systems like Google Drive,” said Catherine Crump, director of the Samuelson Law, Technology and Public Policy Clinic at UC Berkeley School of Law. “Now that we all live so much of our lives online, greater transparency in how courts handle government surveillance requests is more important than ever.”
Update: On Feb. 24, 2021, the district court issued an order denying without prejudice the petitioner’s application to unseal certain search warrant materials.
Counsel: Leita Walker, Ballard Spahr LLP
Catherine Crump, Megan Graham and Juliana DeVries (pro hac vice), Samuelson Law, Technology and Public Policy Clinic at UC Berkeley School of Law
Special thanks to the UC Berkeley School of Law students who worked on this case: David Fang, Catherine Harris, Allan Holder, Caroline Soussloff and Schuyler Standley, and Samuelson Clinic legal intern Korica Simon