POLITICS
11/18/2013 03:02 pm ET Updated Nov 18, 2013

The Supreme Court Just Punted On The NSA's Most Controversial Program

The Supreme Court denied a request from a pro-privacy group for a quick review of the National Security Agency's bulk collection of American phone records on Monday, a decision that means months or years may pass before it examines the controversial program.

In a brief, unsigned order, the court declined to consider the Electronic Privacy Information Center's challenge of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court's order that Verizon turn over all its phone records to the FBI and NSA. The Verizon order was first leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

"We're disappointed that they decided not to take the petition," EPIC executive director Marc Rotenberg told HuffPost. But he stressed that the court's decision was "not a ruling on the merits … it simply chose not to review the order."

EPIC's petition to the Supreme Court was distinct from another challenge, brought by the American Civil Liberties Union, to the constitutionality of the bulk phone records collection program. Instead, the group argued that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court had exceeded its statutory authority under the Patriot Act to order the collection of records relevant to terrorism investigations. A district judge in Manhattan will hear oral arguments on Friday over the ACLU's lawsuit.

Writing on her blog, City University of New York law professor Ruthann Robson said the court's decision in the EPIC case was "both trivial and momentous." She noted that the court routinely denies extraordinary requests of the type that EPIC made, but added that the decision may signal an unwillingness to weigh in on much-debated program.

In Congress, meanwhile, NSA supporters are at odds with agency critics over what to do about the bulk phone call records collection program. Senate Intelligence Chair Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) ushered through her committee a bill that would codify the agency's powers, while Senate Judiciary Chair Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) wants to end the program entirely.

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