Mootness and the 215 Challenges

As a nerdy follow-up to the stories about last night’s expiration of section 215, I thought I’d say a quick word about how that denouement will affect the ongoing litigation challenging the bulk phone records program. In a nutshell, it’s a mixed bag. Although it’s well settled by the Supreme Court that most (albeit not all) suits seeking prospective relief become moot upon the repeal or expiration of the statute being challenged (since there’s nothing left to enjoin), it’s equally axiomatic that claims for damages survive such developments.

To be sure, the plaintiffs in the Second and Ninth Circuit cases challenging section 215–ACLU v. Clapper and Smith v. Obama–both sought only injunctive and/or declaratory relief. In those cases, at least, there’s a non-frivolous argument that the claims were mooted by the expiration of section 215 (although, in ACLU, the plaintiffs also sought an order requiring the government “to purge from their possession all of the call records of Plaintiffs’ communications in their possession collected pursuant to the [phone records program],” a claim that certainly isn’t mooted by 215’s expiration). And in the D.C. Circuit challenge–Klayman v. Obama–the plaintiff also sought (rather excessive) actual, compensatory, and punitive damages in his complaint, which, if nothing else, should pretermit any argument from the government that the case is now moot.

In other words, we should still expect an opinion from the D.C. Circuit on the phone records program even now that section 215 has expired. As for the Second Circuit, the plaintiffs’ purge claim is almost certainly enough to defeat a government motion to vacate the Court of Appeals’ May 7 decision. The more intriguing question is whether the government might therefore seek rehearing en banc or certiorari. Either way, the bottom line is that the expiration of section 215 is likely to have no effect on at least two of the three pending challenges to the phone records program. 

About the Author(s)

Steve Vladeck

Co-Editor-in-Chief of Just Security and Professor of Law at the University of Texas School of Law. Follow him on Twitter (@steve_vladeck).