Contempt of (Secret) Court?

At last week’s House Judiciary Committee hearing on the PATRIOT Act, Rep. Hank Johnson (D-GA) raised an interesting question I haven’t seen discussed much: What happens to someone who willfully violates an order of the highly secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court? (FISA)

Generally, courts have the right to enforce their own orders by finding those who disobey in contempt, and a line from a rare public version of an opinion issued by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court of Review suggests that the same holds here, noting that a service provider who challenged the (now superseded) Protect America Act “began compliance under threat of civil contempt.” (There is, interestingly, some redacted text immediately following that.) Contempt proceedings normally fall to the court that issued the original order.

A finding of civil contempt will typically result in the incarceration of the offending party until they agree to comply—and on the theory that the person “holds the keys to their own cell,” because they’ll be released as soon as they fall in line, normal due process rules don’t apply here. Of course, there are ways of violating the order that make it impossible to comply after the fact, such as breaching the gag rule that prevents people from disclosing that they’ve been served with orders, or (getting extreme now) destroying the records or “tangible things” sought via a Section 215 order. In those cases, presumably, the only recourse would be criminal contempt, for which you’re supposed to be entitled to a jury trial if the penalty is “serious” and involves more than six months incarceration.

That obviously raises some interesting problems given the extraordinarily secret nature of the FISA Court. In the public version of the opinion I linked above, the name of the petitioner and all identifying details are redacted, even the ruling was released six months after it was handed down, so as to avoid tipping off targets about specific providers that have received orders.

Now, I’m going to take a leap of faith and assume we’re not at the point of “disappearing” folks off our own streets, but it is a puzzle how you’d actually carry out enforcement and penalty, if it ever came to that, consistent with the secrecy demanded in these investigations.