Is FISA about Trial Lawyers?

One of the biggest canards of the FISA debate is the notion that congressional Democrats who oppose telecom immunity do so because, as Dick Cheney put it recently, they want to “leave open the possibility that the trial lawyers can go after a big company that may have helped” with the administration’s illegal wiretapping program.

Glen Greewald points to an interview with Cindy Cohn of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the organization spearheading one of the biggest lawsuits against AT&T:

GG: John Boehner, the House Minority Leader, was on Fox News on Sunday arguing for telecom immunity, and this is one of the things he said in explaining why he believed in amnesty: “I believe that [telecoms] deserve immunity from lawsuits out there from typical trial lawyers trying to find a way to get into the pockets of the American companies.”

Is that an accurate description of your lawsuit and your organization?

CC: No, we are not plaintiff’s attorneys… . He’s welcome to come and visit our offices and if he still thinks that we’re rich plaintiffs’ attorneys after he’s visited our little tiny Mission Street offices, then I have a bridge to sell him. We’re a small, struggling nonprofit with a very tiny budget — and we’re doing this because we’re committed to protecting people’s privacy in the digital age.

GG: I don’t know the salaries of EFF lawyers and I’m not asking that, but I assume it’s true that there are all kinds of private sector opportunities and large corporate law firms in San Francisco where lawyers working in those places are making a lot more money, and if EFF lawyers were motivated by the desire for profit — as Mr. Bohener dishonestly suggested — there are a lot of other jobs that you could get that would pay a lot more money.

CC: Oh yeah, absolutely. And in fact, our lawyers are just the opposite. Most of the EFF lawyers worked in those big fancy firms for big fancy salaries, and took big paycuts to join us, because they wanted to do personally fulfilling work and feel like they were making the world a better place.

What I tell young lawyers who come to me and say: “I really want to work for EFF — you have such great lawyers,” I say: “Take your current paycheck, rip it in three pieces, take any third, and that’s about what you’ll get working for EFF.” The lawyers who work for EFF are making some of the biggest contributions to this organization, because they are making far less than they could on the open market in exchange for being able to work on things they believe in every day.

Having visited EFF’s offices myself, I can confirm Cohn’s description — they’re anything but a swanky law firm. And EFF’s work has been vital to defending and expanding online freedom. The idea that the FISA debate is about trial lawyers, rather than privacy and the Constitution, is an insult both to the hard-working lawyers at organizations like EFF and the ACLU, and to everyone else’s intelligence.