The United States Supreme Court has heard arguments in a case involving three Muslim men from California who accused the FBI of illegally monitoring them in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks.
The country’s highest court has been called on to decide whether to allow the men’s trial to proceed despite opposition from the FBI, which said he could not be prosecuted for religious discrimination as it could reveal state secrets.
The question is whether a 1978 U.S. surveillance law, which sets rules for domestic spying on Americans, replaces a state secrecy doctrine developed by a judge and provides grounds for the men’s cases to be heard. .
American Muslims across the United States have accused the FBI of systematically violating their constitutional rights by spying on them after 9/11, but there have been few opportunities to challenge the FBI’s conduct in court as it was primarily conducted in secret.
Conservative Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch questioned the US government’s argument on Monday that the FBI should be allowed to get the case dismissed while keeping its evidence a secret.
“In a world where the state of national security grows every day, that’s quite a power,” said Gorsuch.
The trial focuses on a 14-month period in 2006 and 2007, when the FBI paid an informant named Craig Monteilh to gather information on Muslims as part of a post-9/11 counterterrorism investigation.
Monteilh met Muslims in Southern California, adopted a Muslim name, and said he wanted to convert to Islam, court documents say while recording conversations and carrying out surveillance.
Sheikh Yassir Fazaga, Imam of the Orange County Islamic Foundation in Mission Viejo, and Ali Uddin Malik and Yasser Abdelrahim, both loyal to the Irvine Islamic Center in Irvine, Calif., Have filed a lawsuit.
The men, represented by attorneys for the American Civil Liberties Union and others, claimed to have suffered religious discrimination and other rights violations, claiming that they and hundreds of others had been spied on only because of their faith.
US District Court dismissed case after US government said allowing it to go ahead could reveal “state secrets”, agreeing that continuing the case “would significantly risk disclosure secret information “.
But the Ninth U.S. Court of Appeals in San Francisco overturned the ruling in 2019, saying the lower court should have first privately reviewed evidence that the government characterized as state secrets.
The Biden administration, like the Trump administration before it, argued the decision was wrong.
Other Supreme Court justices on Monday also questioned the FBI’s claims that the trial cannot be authorized on the grounds that state secrets would be compromised.
Judge Stephen Breyer said it would be premature to dismiss the claims without the trial judge having a chance to properly review some documents related to the case. “My point is that there should be a way to look at the information … and decide what to do,” said Breyer, a liberal lawyer.
Ahilan Arunlanathan, a law professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, who argued the case on behalf of the plaintiffs, said the FBI could not use secret information to dismiss the lawsuit.
Instead, Arunlanathan told the judges the case should be allowed to move forward even if the FBI information is withheld in court. “Neither Congress nor the common law allows termination and withholding of evidence” at the same time, he said.
But Judge Brett Kavanaugh appeared sympathetic to the FBI’s confidentiality claims. “That kind of information, depending on what it is, is not the kind of information you want to circulate, even in the White House,” said Kavanaugh, a curator.
Nonetheless, the harsh questioning by Gorsuch and other judges of the government’s arguments has left defenders of the plaintiffs “optimistic” about the direction the court is taking, said Patrick Toomey, an ACLU lawyer, who represents the three Muslim men.
“They clearly understood the main issues in the case, including what is at stake when the government can invoke secrecy just to dismiss allegations of religious discrimination,” Toomey told Al Jazeera.
“It showed the judges were trying to find their way to consensus on how the case should go from here,” Toomey said.
The Supreme Court is expected to render a decision by the end of June.
“We sincerely hope that the Supreme Court will allow our clients’ cases to proceed in accordance with constitutional protections of religious freedom,” Arunlanathan said at a press conference after Monday’s hearing.
“They had a lot of tough questions for both sides. Now we will wait and hope that they will see a path to justice, ”he said.