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Phone-Spying Cases Move To One Court

A panel decided this week that the lawsuits involving the National Security Agency and telephone records would move to the Northern District Court of California because that's where the earliest and most advanced action is pending "before a judge already well versed in the issues."
A judicial panel has ordered that the class action cases alleging that telecommunications companies violated customer privacy rules by cooperating with federal surveillance programs will be heard in one court.

A multi-litigation panel decided late Wednesday that the lawsuits would move to the Northern District Court of California, because that is where the earliest and most advanced action is pending "before a judge already well versed in the issues."

The Judicial Panel on Multi-District Litigation ordered that the cases would be sent to Judge Vaughn Walker for coordinated or consolidated pretrial proceedings. It was not immediately clear if any or all of the 17 cases currently pending would, in fact, be consolidated. The cases were spread across the country and included a variety of defendants and plaintiffs, including Verizon, BellSouth, AT&T and affiliates.

All share common questions of fact and similar legal questions regarding the National Security Agency's (NSA) surveillance program. The panel ordered centralization to avoid duplicate discovery and inconsistent pretrial rulings, Chairman Wm. Terrell Hodges wrote in the transfer order.

Walker is handling the Electronic Frontier Foundation's case against AT&T. He had ordered a stay in the case to await the panel's decision.

EFF attorney Kevin Bankston said during an interview Wednesday that he believed the cases would be consolidated.

The EFF sued AT&T on behalf of customers in February, claming that the telecommunications company provided the NSA direct access to massive amounts of customer data through secret and secure facilities where federal investigators received duplicate data from Americans' communications. The lawsuit includes testimony from former employees who describe secret and secure facilities where wires sent duplicate data to federal investigators.

The federal government and AT&T maintain that they have acted legally. Both sought to dismiss the suit on grounds that court proceedings would divulge state secrets and AT&T is protected by laws that exempt private companies from legal action resulting from cooperation with national security investigations.

Walker tossed out the requests for dismissal and AT&T is appealing that decision, but Bankston said he believes Walker would go ahead with the case, even as the AT&T appeals the dismissal.

"He was pretty clear that he was intending to move forward and that he was not going to wait for the Ninth Circuit to decide the appeal," he said.