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New York Judge Rules Major Provision of Patriot Act Unconstitutional - 2004-09-30

A Federal Court judge in New York has struck down a major provision of the controversial anti-terrorist Patriot Act.

Judge Victor Marrero ruled as unconstitutional a section of the Patriot Act which allows third parties, in this case the FBI and Department of Justice, to obtain confidential financial information from companies during terrorism investigations without court approval.

The decision is a victory for the American Civil Liberties Union, which sued the government on behalf of an unnamed Internet company. The civil liberties group said the Patriot Act's requirement that companies turn over information to comply with so-called "national security letters" from the FBI represented an undue restriction on free speech and privacy rights. Judge Marrero agreed.

The use of "national security letters," basically administrative subpoenas, is at the heart of the issue.

"Today a district court judge in New York City has struck down a provision of the Patriot Act that gives the government the power to issue what are called national security letter," said Nancy Chang is a senior litigator with the Center for Constitutional Right. "These allow the government to obtain sensitive information without going to court or without being overseen by a court in the process."

Judge Marrero said his order barring the FBI from issuing the national security letters will not take effect for three months in order to give the government time to appeal. Ms. Chang says the ruling may eventually come before the Supreme Court, the highest legal authority in the United States.

"There have been a number of decisions issued by the courts since the September 11th terrorist attacks. In each case where the government has lost it has gone up to the higher court to seek a reversal of that ruling," she said. "So I do expect the Bush administration to seek a review of this ruling from the Second Circuit Court of Appeals and, if that ruling is not in its favor, I expect the Bush administration to go to the United States Supreme Court and ask that it accept the case for review."

The Supreme Court has yet to rule on the constitutionality of the Patriot Act, which the U.S. Congress passed just six weeks after the September 11, 2001 attacks. But in June, the Supreme Court dealt a blow to the Bush Administration, ruling that terror suspects should have access to the American judicial system.