In the few days since President Trump nominated him to be an Associate Justice on the Supreme Court, Judge Brett Kavanaugh has seen his life put under the microscope. It turns out that the U.S Court of Appeals for the D.C Circuit judge really likes baseball, volunteers to help the homeless, and has strong connections to the Republican Party – especially the George W. Bush administration. More consequentially, Kavanaugh is an influential judge with solid conservative credentials. For libertarians, Kavanaugh’s record includes much to applaud, especially when it comes to reining in the power of regulatory authorities. However, at least one of Kavanaugh’s concurrences reveals arguments that should concern those who value civil liberties. Members of the Senate Committee on the Judiciary should press Kavanaugh on these arguments at his upcoming confirmation hearing.
In 2015, Kavanaugh wrote a solo concurrence in the denial of rehearing en banc in Klayman v. Obama (full opinion below), in which the plaintiffs challenged the constitutionality of the National Security Agency’s (NSA) bulk telephony metadata program. According to Kavanaugh, this program was “entirely consistent” with the Fourth Amendment, which protects against unreasonable searches and seizures.
The opening of the concurrence is ordinary enough, with Kavanaugh mentioning that the NSA’s program is consistent with the Third Party Doctrine. According to this doctrine, people don’t have a reasonable expectation of privacy in information they volunteer to third parties, such as phone companies and banks. This allows law enforcement to access details about your communications and your credit card purchases without search warrants. My colleagues have been critical of the Third Party doctrine, filing an amicus brief taking aim at the doctrine in the recently decided Fourth Amendment case Carpenter v. United States.
Because the Third Party Doctrine remains binding precedent, Kavanaugh argues, the government’s collection of telephony metadata is not a Fourth Amendment search. Regardless of one’s opinion of the Third Party Doctrine, this is a reasonable interpretation of Supreme Court precedent from an appellate judge.
Yet in the next paragraph the concurrence takes an odd turn. Kavanaugh argues that even if the government’s collection of millions of Americans’ telephony metadata did constitute a search it would nonetheless not run afoul of the Fourth Amendment:
Even if the bulk collection of telephony metadata constitutes a search,[…] the Fourth Amendment does not bar all searches and seizures. It bars only unreasonable searches and seizures. And the Government’s metadata collection program readily qualifies as reasonable under the Supreme Court’s case law. The Fourth Amendment allows governmental searches and seizures without individualized suspicion when the Government demonstrates a sufficient “special need” – that is, a need beyond the normal need for law enforcement – that outweighs the intrusion on individual liberty. Examples include drug testing of students, roadblocks to detect drunk drivers, border checkpoints, and security screening at airports. […] The Government’s program for bulk collection of telephony metadata serves a critically important special need – preventing terrorist attacks on the United States. See THE 9/11 COMMISSION REPORT (2004). In my view, that critical national security need outweighs the impact on privacy occasioned by this program. The Government’s program does not capture the content of communications, but rather the time and duration of calls, and the numbers called. In short, the Government’s program fits comfortably within the Supreme Court precedents applying the special needs doctrine.
This paragraph includes a few points worth unpacking: 1) That the collection of telephony metadata is permitted under the “Special Needs” Doctrine, and 2) The 9/11 Commission Report buttresses the claim that “The Government’s program for bulk collection of telephony metadata serves a critically important special need – preventing terrorist attacks on the United States.”