Robert Jackson and NSA Spying Reconsidered

I enjoyed Roger Pilon’s and Bob Levy’s debate on NSA surveillance Friday. I’ll confess I’m in general agreement with Bob. However, I post to note one wrinkle: Bob mentioned Justice Jackson’s opinion in the Steel Seizure Case (Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer) in support of his position against the NSA surveillance program. In the Steel Seizure Case, Jackson’s concurrence set out a tri-partite framework for assessing presidential power, in which he argued that the power of a President acting without congressional authorization is at its lowest ebb. The problem is that no one knows what exactly this means.

In the spring edition of The Green Bag (available here), Jack Goldsmith (my onetime international law professor and former head of the Office of Legal Counsel) discusses a recently discovered draft of Jackson’s (never filed) concurrence in In re Quirin—the case involving the military trial and eventual execution of enemy saboteurs captured on U.S. soil during World War II. The draft opinion sheds some further light on Jackson’s views.

Here’s the basic gist:

[Jackson] ‘began in Quirin with the fixed presumption that the Court has no business reviewing military judgments in time of war, and he never deviated from that position.’ Jackson clearly stated the basis for this presumption in the closing paragraph of his draft opinion in Quirin:

‘[I]n the long run it seems to me that we have no more important duty than to keep clear and separate the lines of responsibility and duty of the judicial and of the executive-military arms of government. Merger of the two is the end of liberty as we in this country have known it. If we are uncompromisingly to discountenance military intervention in civil justice, we would do well to refuse to meddle with military measures …’

Jackson’s is a somewhat strange middle position: He felt it was the Court’s duty to declare extra-legal actions undertaken in the service of national security unconstitutional when the Court confronted such acts. But Jackson also seemed to believe that courts should not directly interfere with the carrying out of such unconstitutional “military measures.” In effect, Jackson believed the Court, when confronted with illegal actionj must declare it as such, but should leave the remedy to the political process.

What would Jackson have done in a case reviewing the NSA surveillance program.? It is hard to tell. But to the extent he would have viewed the program as a “military measure,” part of the “necessities and practices” of warfare, he might well have wanted the Court to declare it illegal and then abstain from directly ordering an end to the surveillance program.