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High court will take up wiretaps lawsuit

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court says it will consider shutting down a legal challenge to a law that lets the United States eavesdrop on overseas communications.

A federal appeals court ruled last year that a lawsuit filed by lawyers, journalists and human rights groups objecting to the latest version of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act could proceed. But the Obama administration appealed, and the justices said Monday they will take up the case in the fall.

The lawsuit was brought by those in jobs that require them to speak with people overseas who are possible targets of the surveillance.

No court has ruled on the merits of the lawsuit. The current legal fight is over whether the law’s challengers are entitled to make their case in federal court.

The administration says the lawsuit should be dismissed because the plaintiffs only have a fear of having their communications intercepted — as opposed to citing specific instances — which the administration says is insufficient for asking federal judges to intervene. The law’s challengers, however, argue that they already have taken costly and burdensome steps to protect the confidentiality of their overseas communications, based on a reasonable belief that the government could be monitoring their calls.

A three-judge panel of the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New York agreed that the suit could go forward. The full 2nd Circuit divided 6-6 over whether to take another look at the case. The tie vote left in place the panel’s ruling and led to the administration’s high court appeal.

Representing the challengers, the American Civil Liberties Union offered several arguments for why the Supreme Court should resist intervening. The government still could appeal if it ultimately loses the lawsuit and the law itself sunsets at the end of the year, the ACLU said. Congress is considering renewing the expiring provisions.

The changes at issue were adopted by Congress in 2008 in the final months of the Bush administration.

The law gave the government broad authority to monitor phone calls and emails in an effort to detect terrorist plots. It applies only to foreigners who are believed to be outside the United States and who have raised the suspicions of U.S. intelligence officials.

The case is Clapper v. Amnesty International USA, 11-1025.