ACLU of Southern California Deputy Legal Director Ahilan Arulanantham argued yesterday before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, defending a simple position: when the U.S. government lies to a court, it should not go unpunished.
In 2011, a federal district judge took the rare step of fining the government after finding that it lied about the existence of documents regarding the FBI’s surveillance of peaceful, law-abiding Muslim leaders in southern California. The government appealed the decision – in the case Islamic Shura Council v. FBI – to the Ninth Circuit. The government’s argument? Acknowledging that it held certain documents – even just to the court – would have made our country less safe. Below, Ahilan explains why you should care about this case.
Why is this case important?
This case is about far more than a single request for documents. At its heart, it is about whether the government can mislead the very same federal courts that are charged with making sure the government doesn’t abuse its power.
If the Ninth Circuit sides with the government, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) could suffer a serious blow. Under FOIA, courts have the power to tell the government to make certain information public. But if the government is allowed to give false information to courts about whether it even possesses information, the government can prevent the courts from overseeing its conduct.
Did anything surprise you about yesterday's argument?
I was both surprised and disappointed that the Obama Administration continued to wholeheartedly defend its position that it can continue to mislead courts about the existence of documents it believes can be withheld from the public in the name of national security.
How does this case relate to the broader debate about government surveillance and transparency?
In this era – when disputes about so many basic statutory and constitutional rights are resolved by individual judges hearing only from the government behind closed doors – it is more important than ever that the government always provide truthful information. I hope the Ninth Circuit will recognize the broad significance its ruling in this case will have.