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The Door To The FISA Court Doesn't Even Have A Sign On It (konklone.com)
273 points by luigi on July 31, 2013 | hide | past | web | favorite | 56 comments

When I was doing real estate investing I ran into a kangaroo "court" that the local corrupt city set up to handle property code violations. They would have a cop set up at the front and an appointed "judge" (they had some other name for him to not offend the law too mightily) who wore robes and asked everyone to stand up and sit down. The person in the robes would arbitrarily make up fines for the offenses according to their whims and moods. I know because there was a $4500 "judgement" on one of the houses I bought for having a driveway that needed to be repaired.

Anyway, it turns out that this "court" is a complete fabrication that the city put up as a way to put up the appearance of being fair. But cities are corporations, they aren't allowed to establish courts like this, and it was a complete sham. That's why you have to have a real judge hear traffic cases.

This is a sham traffic court too. This is not part of the judicial branch of government any more than the "property code violations court" presided over by a clown in black robes. There's a reason we have a separation of powers. A paid employee wielding a rubber stamp is not justice.

> But cities are corporations, they aren't allowed to establish courts like this

This depends on the laws of the state in which a city is located. In Texas, for instance, cities are "municipal corporations" whose only commonality with a "business corporation" is the word "corporation." State law, consistent with the state constitution, gives certain cities the authority to establish a variety of courts and "administrative tribunals" by passing a city ordinance. So, they are very much "allowed to establish courts like this," though the fairness in practicality may be in question.

I agree with your sentiment, but the Constitution gives congress the power to establish inferior courts.

But still, state and local governments are bound by the 14th Amendment's "equal protection" clause[1], so if a city court makes arbitrary and whimsical decisions they can probably be sued for civil rights violations.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Equal_Protection_Clause

I must be reading this incorrectly because if this is what I think this is then states and local governments cannot discriminate based on citizenship. Please correct me (and sorry for going off a tangent) but doesn't this make what they're doing in Arizona unconstitutional?

Yes, that was part of the basis of the DoJ's case there. The Fourteenth Amendment extends protection to all persons, not just citizens.

How does that jive with the US citizen / non-citizen split in what the NSA feels entitled to do? Does that not imply all people are granted 4A rights?

IANAL but I think the constitution only applies to people under the jurisdiction of the US, i.e. in US sovereign territory.

They talk of "U.S. persons", not U.S. citizens: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_person

The government argues (and many lawyers agree) that 3rd party business records are not covered by the 4th amendment and reading them is not a "search." The amendment is very clear on the government's authority to come into your house and look around, and while it seems like it should protect electronic communication, it doesn't (necessarily).

It's actually the Wiretap Act that protects telephone calls, not the 4th amendment. But there's no real analogue of the Wiretap Act for things like email and Facebook.

I think that the 3rd party doctrine is flawed in that the 4th Amendment specifically states that we are to be secure in our "persons, papers, and effects," which equates to the communications medium of the era of the Constitution's authors, and a parallel can be drawn with the US Postal Service, as our mail is supposed to be secure against external perusal except when the final provision of the 4th Amendment is met by issuance of a warrant describing the things to be seized or inspected.

The wiretap law should be revised to include other forms of electronic communications in order to thwart such applications of the feeble 3rd party doctrine.

I find it reprehensible that in the "Land of the Free" we allow our government to circumvent the letter and intent of the Bill of Rights in the name of "security" when these very circumventions are the antithesis of freedom.

A US non-citizen person is still different from an alien.... consider children.

Thanks... I actually hadn't thought about that aspect of it (that real estate court was still not established by Congress ;)

I've been reading up on that a bit since your comment, it's a pretty interesting topic because it touches on one branch's ability to influence another. It's a little troubling that a supreme court justice (Roberts, in this case) has the ability to fill this oversight court with whoever he wants. It seems that needs to be fixed.

He has to fill the court with federal judges that have been appointed by a President and approved by the Senate. That's a somewhat higher standard than whoever.

I wish more people understood this... I keep seeing comments about being appointed with no oversight... there was oversight when they were approved by the congress(Senate). If they aren't fit to be on this court, then perhaps they aren't fit to be federal judges.

Perhaps they aren't, I think you would find that to be true in a lot of cases.

Perhaps there are people one would trust to be judges when there's a full public record of their proceedings, but not when those proceedings take place behind closed doors with no public oversight.

My problem is the proceedings taking place behind closed doors and without any real oversight. Especially since DOJ/NSA/FBI have been outright lying to congress.

That real estate court was headed by someone more like an administrative law judge. Some states allow that sort of thing. In New York, towns and villages have elected justices who go to judge school for 60 hours. They preside over minor cases like traffic and "police court" type matters.

One of the more serious issues with the FISA court is that they appear to be only nominally distinct from the Executive. The staff seems to come from the DoJ, for example. I think this reflects the fact that this was until recently a sleepy backwater of the court system.

I wouldn't focus too much on the Chief Justice's ability to appoint the judges. Federal judges are very powerful people, and that power (and the permanence of their position) gives them more independence in terms of judgement than just about anyone.

There is a such thing as Administrative courts. IRS has them. Department of Justice has them for immigration. So, as long as this court was authorized by Congress the Executive can implement it.

This sounds very similar to the description the NYtimes gave on their piece about NYs local court system:


So what was the end of the story? What did you do about this kangaroo court? Report it?

Is anyone collecting a list of the surreal, absurd, or kafkaesque events surrounding post-9/11 national security?

This episode reminds me of the red warning light from ksm's gitmo trial that would sometimes light up and cut the gallery feeds on its own: http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/comment/2013/01/secrec...

Glenn Greenwald's commentary/journalism since a few years after 9/11 is basically such a list

Kinda off-topic:

Why cameras are banned on courtrooms? I remember the last US trial news all of them had sketches like this instead of photos and videos...

EDIT about the argument below about google: I always search Google first, but I found lots of random answers, and I don't have enough domain knowledge to know what one (or ones) are correct or resemble how things really are, asking here usually spark people to post very interesting information, that sometimes are obscure even, and hard to find on Google.

Instead of telling people to use Google, why not wonder: If the person CAN have that information, and is asking anyway, what the person wants to know, that is not easy to find on Google?

I would have loved to have a device to record the pre-trial banter in a state court prior to a recent case involving a family member. The prosecutor was going on at length about a recent event where they had driven to Florida for a vacation and got pulled over for speeding, but was soon let go after they told them who they were and who they worked for.

I wanted very much to stand and ask what other laws did not apply to them, if they were free to ignore those pertaining to automobiles, or even if they felt they should be held responsible if they were to break the same law they were charging my family member for.

The standard reason given is privacy for the victim and jury, less jury poisoning if there needs to be a retrial, people can be a little more or at ease, etc.

It definitely depends on the court, OJ's trial was on TV.

I cannot imagine FISA Courts having victims or jury. I thought it was all decided by the judges. Is it not so?

That's true, but all FISA proceedings are classified, so there's no way they would allow cameras.

Well, they might allow cameras -- "classified" does not mean "no records" -- but any photos or video would also be classified.

They certainly wouldn't allow the media (or the public) in the courtroom, with or without cameras, or allow the media/public access to anything any cameras they did allow in captured.

Yes, but the rule is a part of general federal court procedure rules.


It's up to the court (and maybe to the judge?). There's a pilot program that the District Court for Massachusetts is doing to allow them:


"Why cameras are banned on courtrooms? I remember the last US trial news all of them had sketches like this instead of photos and videos... "

In general, because the judiciary has watched what the "news media" has done to every other aspect of life, and doesn't want trials and judging to become a popularity contest.

They try to strike a balance by doing things like having most court of appeals release live or near-live audio versions of arguments, allowing tweeting from court rooms, whatever.

Just not the "let's put up the satellites and get nancy grace on live"

> Why cameras are banned on courtrooms?

Privacy for the people being tried, and in many legitimate cases to protect identities. I suspect they just vetoed them rather than having to decide.

Besides, the vast majority of interesting content is captured by audio recording equipment.

A "let me Google that for you" response is rude, and using a link shortener to hide a URL is poor form. For the curious it goes to http://lmgtfy.com/?q=Why+cameras+are+banned+on+courtrooms%3F...

Rude... what's the word for asking basic easily googlable questions? Is it annoying? Is it spammy? Is it presumptuous (that we should spend our time answering googlable questions)?

If you don't want to answer it, don't answer it. Leave it to motivated people.

The question wasn't just a request for raw data. It was also an expression of frustration and an invitation to debate.

OP asked "why". OP didn't ask, "Here are the facts I've researched and understand, do you agree/disagree?"

The former is lazy and relatively useless, the latter is an opportunity for enticing discussion.

Let's say it was useless. Responding with a content-free and condescending comment did nothing to further the conversation. You're using more space on the page to say nothing and dragging down the tone of the conversation.

It provides OP, and others, with information as to why it was useless to help prevent future useless comments, improving the overall comment quality of Hacker News. Albeit, my method was crass.

I thought that question would provoke some good discussion.

I want to thank the author for the excellent sketches. If I was forbidden photography equipment, my sketches would be rectangles, which, if squinted at, might construe a door.

Joking aside, it is obviously very concerning that FISA is completely unaccountable to the public. The lack of a sign is just another symptom of the abuse of secrecy.

You're welcome! Though Lindsay Young did the actual sketching.

Not to ruin the central point of this article, but i'd say 50% of the courts i've been in don't have obvious signs on the doors.

They just tell you you are in room 302 for this or that, or whatever (this is true even in appeals courts where they aren't really shifting around courtrooms all the time. The main courtroom will just be some numbered nameless room).

The only usually obvious signs are the names on judges chambers, and in a lot of cases, they aren't even in the same building!

No sign on the door indicates that they know they should be ashamed even though shame doesn't appear to be one of their guiding lights.

edit: great little piece, btw. I'll pass it around.

By law it's a secret court to begin with. Whether or not there's a sign on the door, it's still a secret court. Would a secret court that advertised its location be more palatable to you somehow? Because a sign on the door adds zero significance to the substance of the FISA court's existence or powers.

And, given that it is a secret court, well it wouldn't be very secret if everyone knew where the courtroom was, would it?

Secret courts, secret trials, secret prisons, secret wars...maybe I need to learn why my ancestors left Germany.

> Would a secret court that advertised its location be more palatable to you somehow?

For me, yes, what is secret about a secret court matters.

Classified proceedings? I think there could be room for that, within reason and with some kind of oversight.

A court that makes a secret of its existence? No way. That makes oversight more difficult -- one of the few who oversees it can't make a democratic issue of how it operates.

A court that makes its rules and workings secret? Nope.

A court that makes its location secret? Not sure if that's particularly bad if everything else is on the level, but I also don't know if it's necessary, and keeping the location secret seems like a step towards forgetting it's there and what it's doing. So I'm less comfortable with that.

The lack of a sign is not the problem. Given that hand scanner by the door, having a sign would be a bit silly -- anyone who would actually need the sign can't get in regardless. Given that (almost?) everything they do apparently involves classified information, the hand scanner makes sense.

What is a problem, is not having anyone to answer the phones and not having the building receptionist know what to tell people.

And if they put a hand scanner on 1 other door then what? Having a sign that indicates where a court is, is not silly.

I wonder how hackable that hand scanner is. Is it any more secure than the hotel rooms that were cracked a year or 2 back?

Yes, there are ways of making more secure hand scanners. The article links to the exact model, if you're interested. No, it probably isn't perfect. But it's part of a larger security system; remember, whatever you're bringing to "hack" this door, you must have also slipped past a physical inspection. I don't necessarily expect total brilliance from the security guards, but I suspect they would know enough to ask you some very pointed questions if you tried to sneak in a to-scale replica of somebody's hand.

>...the employees in the first floor District Clerk's office (gently) laughed at my attempts to find anything about the Court. They referred to it as the "Room of Requirement", and said they had no idea what floor it was even on.

In a maelstrom of political chaos, it's nice to see at least a bit of humor every now and then. It seems Life Imitates Art. This pleases the Potter fan in me.

The only person to be tried at this court was Citizen K.

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