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ACLU gets OK to pursue Patriot Act suit

David Ashenfelter / Detroit Free Press | October 5 2006

DETROIT - A federal judge in Detroit rejected the government's request to dismiss an ACLU lawsuit challenging the constitutionally of the controversial USA Patriot Act, an anti-terrorism measure Congress enacted after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

U.S. District Judge Denise Hood issued the ruling without fanfare Friday, nearly three years after promising a speedy decision in the case. Congress amended the act in March, well after the hearing before Hood in December 2003.

Hood said in a 15-page decision that the American Civil Liberties Union's clients -- six Muslim groups that provide religious, medical, social and educational services to Muslims and people of Arab descent -- established that they have been harmed or threatened by Section 215 of the law.

The U.S. Justice Department said it was studying the decision and had no comment Tuesday. Michigan ACLU Executive Director Kary Moss said she was satisfied with the decision.

"She confirmed what we've said all along, that our clients are suffering concrete harm as a result of the Patriot Act," Moss said of Hood's ruling. "Even though we think the act fails to comply with the Constitution, we believe our legal challenge and advocacy in Congress has fixed some of the worst problems."

The ACLU had charged that the Patriot Act enabled the government to obtain warrants from the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court in Washington without having to offer evidence to justify the request. The ACLU said the law had caused people served by the Muslim groups to stop attending mosque, practicing their religion and expressing opinions about religion and politics for fear of being targeted by the government.

The ACLU said the law has had a chilling effect on their clients' right to free speech and association because it enables the government to seize membership lists from political groups, find out what books people checked out of libraries or what they told social service agencies about medical and family problems without their ever learning about it.

A Justice Department lawyer countered in the December 2003 hearing that the FBI had never used the law and, as a result, no harm had been done. He asked Hood to dismiss the suit.

In March, Congress amended the law. The Justice Department contended that the amendments corrected any constitutional deficiencies in the law. The ACLU disagreed.

Hood's ruling means the ACLU's clients can proceed with their lawsuit and gives them 30 days to amend their initial complaint in light of amendments adopted by Congress in March.

Moss said she would check with her clients to see whether they still want to proceed with the suit.

She said the revised law gives any business receiving a request for records of customers and employees the right to consult with a lawyer before turning anything over to the government.

Moss said the law still prohibits anyone who receives a records request from divulging it for one year, but the business can challenge the order after the year has lapsed.

And, she added, the ability of the government to obtain a warrant to seize records without probable cause from the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court still poses a problem.

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